Many of the suffragists who were imprisoned on “obstructing traffic” charges served time in the Occoquan Workhouse. (Episode 73) The workhouse started in 1910 as a model for prison reform by promoting atonement through hard work in a more humane environment. Set in the Virginia countryside, it started as a men’s prison and was built by the prisoners who later inhabited it. Each brick created, each building built, the adjacent land that was farmed, and trade skills shops that produced things were thought to enrich the prisoner's marketable skills and make him feel useful as he paid his debt to society. The women’s section was added in 1912 and was mostly poor women of color often arrested on minor charges of prostitution and disorderly conduct. When Occoquan started, it was considered to be very progressive, but prison reform is a multidimensional issue and many noble ideas lead to poor outcomes when only the incarceration part of the problem is addressed. By 1917, the conditions were already becoming inhumane and substandard.
The suffragists were mostly middle to upper class white women whose social status and skin color would have protected them from these conditions, but those factors also gave them the resources to do something about their imprisonment. Throughout the summer and fall of 1917, they secretly kept diaries of the abuse including the Night of Terror, hunger strikes, force feedings, and solitary confinement. Their mail and visitors were restricted but they were able to smuggle out notes about their situation.Through their connections, other suffragists and politicians eventually were able to visit them in jail and could see the conditions for themselves as well as witnessing the deteriorating health of many of the women. On Nov 23, 1917, Judge Edmund Waddill heard direct testimony from the prisoners, several of whom had trouble walking and had to lay down on stretchers. On November 24, the judge ruled that the prisoners could be paroled until their appeal. Only three of the suffragists took the offer because of their poor health, the others including Alice Paul refused parole and were transferred to the Washington Asylum and Jail to finish out their sentences. 19 of the suffragists were still on hunger strikes and this caused a problem because the National Woman’s Party (NWP) started publishing bits of Lucy Burns’ secret diary that she had been able to smuggle out. Clandestine notes from suffrage prisoner Elizabeth McShane were also published. The graphic accounts of force feedings and brutality towards the women did not sit well with the general public. The Wilson administration was being blamed for the starvation, endangerment, and brutalization of American citizens who had engaged in lawful and peaceful protests. On November 27, 1917 Alice Paul and the rest of the suffragists were unexpectedly freed and released from jail by Police Court Judge Alexander Mullowney, the same judge who had originally sentenced them.
In December of 1917, suffragists who served time for the cause were awarded sterling silver “Jailed for Freedom” pins designed by Nina Allender (WCW 61). The design is a classic grid style prison door with a chain and a heart shaped lock.
The Occoquan Workhouse became part of the Lorton Correctional facilities which eventually closed in 2001. The buildings and grounds have been repurposed into the Workhouse Art Center and the Lucy Burns Museum which opened in 2018.
This week’s song pick:
“You Are Not Alone” by Mavis Staples https://youtu.be/925Z71fT3Yg
Episode 74 Sources: