“Was at the prison most of the day.”

Lavinia Goodell, March 18, 1879

During the years she practiced law in Janesville, Wisconsin, Lavinia Goodell was appointed to represent a number of criminal defendants. (Read more about her experience here.)  She also started a jail school, believing that if the men were educated they had a much better chance of becoming productive members of society after their release.

Lavinia took a personal interest in the inmates and formed close relationships with some of them. She encouraged them to write to her. Some called her “Mother” and gave her photographs of themselves. Judging by the number of times she mentioned them and corresponded with them, two of her favorites were named Sutton and Sullivan. Both men were ultimately sent to the state prison in Waupun, Wisconsin. The prison had opened in the 1850s.

Waupun State prison, c. 1870s

Lavinia visited Waupun to see her “boys” in March of 1879. According to her diary, she “Brought presents for the boys” and “had good talks” with Sutton, Sullivan, and others the night of her arrival.

The following day she wrote in her diary:

Lavinia Goodell’s diary entry, March 18, 1879

The warden with whom Lavinia dined was Horatio N. Smith. He was appointed as warden in 1875 and served in that capacity for six years. Although Lavinia did not leave any notes describing conditions at the prison, a lengthy article about Waupun appeared in the the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper ten months before Lavinia’s visit. The author reported:

Entering the main gate one is struck with the good order and cleanliness everywhere apparent. The flower gardens look bright and pleasant, and the yards are kept up with the same order and neatness that usually characterize the grounds of a private residence. In the office, the Warden, Mr. H. N. Smith, greeted us very pleasantly.

The prison housed 350 inmates, six of them women. Forty-two inmates were serving life sentences. While the inmates had previously been employed manufacturing furniture, in 1877, the legislature entered into a contract with a Chicago company for the manufacture of boots and shoes:

There are now 260 convicts at work in the shops, for whose labor the state receives 40 cents per day for each convict. Nearly all the work of making boots or shoes is now done by machinery, even to fastening on the soles and heels. Each room is in charge of a uniformed keeper, who sits aloft on a raised platform, where he can overlook every man in the room. The prisoners are all closely shaven and each has his hair cropped short. They are clothed in a gray suit, with striped hickory shirts. Looking at the prisoners in passing through the room where they are at work, you see about the same variety of faces as in any other assemblage of men, although the effect of their peculiar clothing adds greatly to the wretchedness of their appearance.  

The author went on:

Many of the faces are those of young men, some mere boys, and these generally are more painful to look at than the older, and more hardened ones. … Some of the faces bear evidence of the feeling which actuated Jean Valjean in his desperation, and they need no convict’s uniform to tell you of their hopeless and broken down condition.

As to the inmates’ living conditions:

A visit to the kitchen showed it to be clean and well managed. An immense kettle of meat, smoking with savory odors, and a stack of bread piled as high as one’s head, showed that the convicts were well fed. They are roused at six in the morning, when their breakfast is handed into their cells, and at seven they march out to their work. Each convict is expected to work full ten hours each day.

The author concluded, “The institution in all its parts appears to be well managed, and a visit there is worth the trouble it costs to anyone who has never seen it.”

By October of 1879, Sullivan had been released from prison – the district attorney  recommended his early release – and visited Lavinia. She wrote in her diary, “In afternoon Sullivan came and I spent the afternoon and evening in visiting with him. Feel much encouraged by his appearance and quite enjoyed him.” Lavinia tirelessly advocated for prison reform, and near the end of her life she read a paper on the subject at a national woman’s conference in Madison. Waupun Correctional Institution is still open and serves as one of Wisconsin’s maximum security prisons. Much of the structure that Lavinia Goodell visited in 1879 is still in use.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s diary; The Oshkosh Northwestern (May 23, 1878); https://usgenwebsites.org/WISheboygan/genealogy_html/news67.htm.

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