Author: Malcolm Blake (USA)
The female occupants of our penitentiaries are comparatively few in number, and although much is being written nowadays concerning the treatment meted out to male convicts, that to which women are subjected has excited little attention.
The Los Angeles branch of the Prison Reform League is the possessor of the only detailed and quite recent account of life in the female department at San Quentin that, so far as can be ascertained, is in existence.
The account discloses conditions that call for prompt and unflinching investigation. I have only to add that the league has corroborated this account by the testimony of three past and two present inmates, and to remind the readers that it is always among the most difficult of tasks to obtain and verify such information.
Incidentally it may be remarked that after the obtaining and verification of this account the prison authorities were warned that a full exposure would follow refusal ta bring about instant reform. We summarize in part and quote extensively.
It will be seen that the woman in question is far from being uneducated. She was an inmate of San Quentin several years. Here are her words:
"A door opens from an office, and you enter a place that looks for all the world like a bear pit, with its thick, gray walls on four sides and cement floor. This pit, by actual measurement, is 60 ft. by 90. Out of this oblong a building, 40 by 20, is taken; so, if you are good at figures, you can see just what room is allowed for clothes-lines, exercise, garbage cans, etc. The feet of these poor women never touch the ground of mother earth, and all exercise, which is optional, has to be taken on this cement floor.
Midway in the place is the hopper, and on the other side hang the thirty or forty buckets used in the cells from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. Opposite stand the immense garbage cans, and, as they have no covers, the aroma that greets the olfactory nerves is indeed overwhelming.
No benches, whereon one might sit to get the sun, are in the pen, and the matron will not allow the women to carry out a chair ; so, if one must have a little sun and air, the only alternative is to squat on the stairs leading out of the yard to the cells, or sit on the cement flat and let one's feet hang down.
Either plan is conducive to sorry comfort, helping the rheumatism and stiffness of joints so much in evidence among the inmates. 'Why cannot the warden allow a few benches to be placed along the gray walls?' was asked many times, and the reply was that seats would injure the cement!
Never mind the women. They are here for punishment; and I can add feelingly that no stone was left unturned to see that they got all that was coming to them.
"The hopper referred to deserves a special article. It is situated in the laundry room, and is an old fashioned thing, about eighteen inches in diameter. Into this must go the contents of the buckets I have mentioned, and as this deposit must take place as soon as the women are dressed, the scene that follows beggars description.
There were two large holes in the floor of this laundry, and as the filth from human bodies accumulated and overflowed the hopper, a stream ran into these holes and this filth flowed, under the dining-room and kitchen, out under an office, emitting a stench that finally attracted the attention of some officer.
The matter was then remedied slightly, but the vile conditions of the hopper remain.
"The pen, or pit, is also the playground at night of an ever increasing army of the most gigantic rats, and the stairs, platforms and yard bore unmistakable evidence of their nocturnal ramblings. As the women emerged from their cells in the early morning they reminded one of cave dwellers, and the agility which had to be used to clear away these remembrances of his ratship was something long to be remembered.
They also invaded the kitchen, and mute evidence of their presence was often seen in the beans, rice and other foods, if the cook was not careful.
Try, if you can, to imagine the air in such a place. Small wonder that the health gives way, and that tuberculosis, rheumatism, sore throat and kindred diseases are prevalent."