The following is a chapter from “Changing the World: Clark University’s Pioneering People, 1887–2000” (Chandler House Press, 2005), written by former Clark president Richard P. Traina.
When one considers the history of reformatories for juvenile delinquents and prisons for women, the fault line between past and present is discovered in the professional career of Miriam Van Waters. If Van Waters had been an earthquake, she would have registered about a 7.5 on the Richter scale, so energetically did she shake up the world of reformatories and prisons. Her entire adult life was dedicated to the cause of penal reform.
In 1911, Van Waters arrived at Clark as a graduate student in psychology on the recommendation of a Clark alumnus on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In Madison, she had been an honors student in philosophy and earned a master’s degree in psychology. Raised in Oregon, the eldest daughter of a constantly moving Episcopalian priest and an escapist mother, Van Waters was assigned regular responsibility for caring for her four younger siblings — in fact, her parents twice sent troublesome siblings to Wisconsin for Miriam’s tending while she was a student there. Perhaps this is how she developed her skill in working with wayward youth and her interest in studying them.
At Clark, Van Waters began her doctoral work on delinquent girls with G. Stanley Hall, but she was soon alienated by Hall’s ideas and disposition and switched to anthropology under Alexander Chamberlain. Van Waters doubted she would “ever think on the same channel with Dr. Hall,” adding that “his ancestors burned witches and nailed ears to pillories and let their women do all the work. The only sport they ever had was reading Jonathan Edwards and the Penal Code.” She then showed her penchant for testing boundaries in her doctoral thesis, “The Adolescent Girl among Primitive Peoples” — in which she emphasized the “force and legitimacy of female sexuality.” That same work importantly displayed an appreciation of different cultures. In both regards, she anticipated Margaret Mead.
Van Waters loved the variety of people in the student body at Clark and described the University as “wonderful:” “The plan of work is wholly personal. You go to any, or all, lectures without restraint — or you stay away and work. Theses count for everything. I think I can do the best work of my life here.” She observed with enthusiasm that “there are no fast lines between students and faculty.” But, she also had her doubts: “Some of these students are mutts. Any kind of absurdity they will accept, if it be accompanied with footnotes, and nothing so imbecilic that they won’t believe it, if it be provided with a diagram and a bibliography.” Throughout her life, she would be an undeniable advocate and a formidable opponent.
Short of stature and dynamic in manner, Van Waters could be charming and charismatic-her authoritative presence perhaps early enhanced by the gray which colored her hair, even in her twenties. It is said that people stood up when she entered a room. She could also raise hackles and inspire anger in those who opposed her. Her dedication to her work was so great that she decided against marrying the man whom she loved, a foreign national, because, under the law of the time, the marriage would have meant giving up her United States citizenship and thereby her position as head of the Framingham Reformatory, a facility for women near Boston. She was so compassionate and caring that she herself adopted a ten-year-old delinquent with continuing behavioral problems.
Van Waters was an unrelenting reformer, persistently challenging conventional attitudes toward prisoners and the purposes and practices of prisons and reformatories. As head of the Frazer Detention Home in Portland, Oregon, later the director of the El Retiro experimental reformatory for girls in Los Angeles, and then for twenty-six years (1931 to 1957) as superintendent of the well-known Framingham Reformatory, she introduced reforms that earned her a national reputation: prohibiting physical punishment; hiring physicians and psychologists; employing dieticians and recreational specialists; instituting a measure of self-government and choices in vocational training, clubs, and education; providing outside work opportunities with wages to be kept by the inmate and accumulated until release from incarceration; and enabling inmates to adjust gradually to the outside world. These practices and others were shaped by a theoretical posture that directly defied the attitudes and practices of her time.
As early as 1911, Van Waters wrote, “there is no ‘juvenile vice,’ there are no ‘wicked’ boys and girls-only bad homes, rich and poor-and bad health and bad civic life and no adequate work for eager hands.” She asserted that the basic role of the juvenile court should be to determine if the offender “is in such a condition that he has lost or has never known the fundamental rights of childhood to parental shelter and control.” The number of people sharing such beliefs at that time was too small to be considered a minority. The title of her provocative 1927 book speaks loudly: “Parents on Probation.”
A representative attitude of the day was that females charged with sexual offenses were “morally insane,” and, facing a judicial double standard, women were penalized more severely than men for sexual offenses. Women being released from prison were commonly informed only hours before departure, given very little money (as few as two dollars) to begin their “new lives,” and offered a lecture about avoiding return. Time in prison was idle, with no preparation for return to society — and no rehabilitative consideration. In the case of children, foster homes for delinquents were opposed since these children were considered hopeless. Juvenile delinquents could be committed for life if their parents and two doctors agreed that they were “unruly,” or by reformatory superintendents who labeled them “weak-minded,” or by social workers who deemed it “necessary” — with no legal or psychiatric review of their cases. Van Waters spent a lifetime changing such attitudes, practices and statutes. She described detention centers with her usual flair: “This institution is not a scrap heap in which to toss society[‘s] misfits. It is a place of unparalleled opportunity for reconstruction of lives.”
With these bold reforms came opposition. One of Van Waters’ subordinates at Framingham attempted to poison her. Politicians attempted to remove her in 1948, following the suicide of an inmate. That action succeeded for three months, until, by court order, she was reinstated as superintendent. There were personal challenges as well, in addition to sacrificing a marriage. She was once struck down by tuberculosis, another time by an aneurysm, and yet again by a fractured skull caused by a fall from a horse. But her embattled life did not distract her from her reform causes-which came to include the abolition of capital punishment.
Along the way, Van Waters garnered special assignments of high consequence and the recognition and friendship of well-placed people. Herbert Hoover, in 1928, appointed her to the famous Wickersham Commission on crime in America. Twenty years later, she was appointed by the United Nations to a panel on the rehabilitation of the woman offender (the only woman serving on the panel). Eleanor Roosevelt was a champion of Van Waters, writing about Miriam in her weekly column in the New York Telegram and Sun, and in other publications. Mrs. Roosevelt once wrote to an acquaintance about Van Waters: “I can not refrain from writing to tell you that she is … considered so helpful in many institutions the world over where there is a concern for cure and rehabilitation of prisoners rather than punishment alone.” Felix Frankfurter, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, called her “‘my mind and conscience’ on matters relating to youth in trouble.” Dr. Elizabeth Woods, a social reformer and contemporary of Van Waters, wrote that “her influence on thinking and practice in the field of criminology cannot be measured, especially in the area of rehabilitation.”
Miriam Van Waters spent a lifetime battling conventional ideas about the criminal character, the purposes and practices of incarceration, criminal law and capital punishment. Barbara Sickerman, writing in “Notable American Women” in 1980, concluded that much of modern philosophy and procedures of penology reflect the views of Miriam Van Waters. On the occasion of her death in 197 4, the Boston Globe noted that, “In a state still trying to reconcile itself with the concept of rehabilitation, Dr. Miriam Van Waters left the prison reform movement a legacy of commitment, common sense, and compassion.” Van Waters’ self-eulogy was somewhat different: “Her sole importance is she nearly cleared ten acres of poison ivy, and she never made a deal.”