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Reforming a Girls' Reformatory

Oct 30 2009
A Kansas facility's shuttering reveals the successes and pitfalls of 19th-century moral reform.

In August, Beloit Juvenile Correctional Facility in northern Kansas closed its doors. Heather Hollingsworth's coverage for the Associated Press highlights the triumphs and downfalls of one of the country's longest-running girls' reformatories.

Beloit was started in 1888 by the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which ran it for a year or two before handing it over to the state. A separate reformatory for juveniles was still a relatively new concept; up until the mid-19th century, children and adult were jailed in the same facility.

Beloit's WCTU had good intentions to shape "incorrigible" youth into morally upright women. Like other reformatories, girls at Beloit worked in the gardens or at nearby farms and took care of the institute's animals.

"But with the high-minded ideals of the reformers, there was a dark side as well," explained Ned Loughran, executive director of the Council for Juvenile Correctional Administrators in Braintree, Massachusetts. "These kids were an eyesore for the upper classes of society. The solution wasn't to change the conditions they were growing up in, the poverty and lack of parental supervision. The view was to get them out of sight. Then people forgot they were there, and abuses crept into the system."

One of Beloit's worst times took place between 1935 and 1936 under superintendent Lula Coyner. With a growing belief in eugenics, Coyner forced 62 girls, nearly half of Beloit's inhabitants, to be sterilized. The girls had to go to the police to stop Coyner, who was planning for more residents to have their fallopian tubes removed. Under other superintendents, girls had been physically and emotionally abused in other ways.

In addition to abuses at Beloit, Hollingsworth notes, "It was common practice for much of the facility's history to lock up young abuse victims rather than their abusers." Yet some former residents praise Beloit for being a haven. They knew they weren't the real criminals, but rather victims who were reacting to the situations they were in.

It took a long time to enforce prison reform, but Christians had a strong hand in it. Elizabeth Fry, a mother of 11, pioneered prison reform in England during the early 1800s. As a Christian, Fry had compassion and a strong belief that prisoners could be redeemed. She practiced that belief daily, reading the Bible to female inmates and teaching them basic hygiene and sewing so they would have a skill when they were freed.

Through one of her organizations, Fry pushed for the government to instate reforms such as separating prisoners according to their offenses and gender. The lives of prisoners improved, and other prisons and eventually entire countries picked up on her ideas. As the Christian History and Biography article notes, "Fry's ideas inspired subsequent generations to combine social work and gospel proclamation and reshaped how prisoners have been treated ever since."

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