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The Model Prison That Never Was: It was to be a prison made up of quaint cottages and orchards on a peaceful wooded riverfront in Okemos. There would be no armed guards, barred windows, or imposing walls. Nearly a century ago, state leaders and reformers celebrated the impending construction of the Michigan State Training School for Women--Michigan's first standalone women's penitentiary.

The idea of a "model" prison was rooted in Progressive-Era optimism, ambition, and social reform that existed throughout the nation during the early twentieth century. Plans for the Michigan State Training School for Women took shape as progressive activists in the state reimagined how to address society's most significant challenges, ranging from political corruption to criminal justice practices.

In 1894, during a meeting of the Detroit chapter of the Collegiate Alumni--later the American Association of University Women--which included the presence of the famed reformer Jane Addams, progressive activists discussed the need for a women's prison in Michigan. Having studied reformatories in France and the two existing women's institutions in the United States, the attendees noted that separating women from men promoted a "broader humanitarianism" by freeing them from "degrading influences," according to the Detroit Free Press.

Building on that meeting, progressive organizations lobbied state officials to establish a bold experiment in prison reform for Michigan's female inmates. Their hopes appeared to be realized in 1917, when Governor Albert E. Sleeper signed a bill authorizing the Michigan State Training School for Women. The project was provided an initial appropriation of $100,000 for the purchase of land and the first stage of construction.

Designing a Model Prison

After delays brought on by American participation in World War I, the women's prison project regained momentum in 1919, when the state announced that it had purchased a site for the prison in rural Okemos. The penitentiary would be built between the Red Cedar River and the Pere Marquette railroad on 120 acres of picturesque natural landscape. That land featured majestic river banks and tall trees and was located miles from the hustle and bustle of Michigan's growing urban centers.

Plans for the prison's physical layout and social structure offered inmates the promise of a calm, delicate, and homely environment. The prisoners would stay in three cottages equipped with sun parlors, sleeping porches, play rooms for dependent children, and other features and would be supervised by respectable "matrons" and their assistants. Original plans also included common recreational and occupational areas in the center of the grounds and a chapel to encourage piety among the women. The outdoor landscape was to consist of vegetable gardens and fruit orchards, in addition to its natural features.

Prison inmates would not only be given supervision and instruction but also live in accordance with the "honor system." They would farm in the summer and undertake indoor "women's work" such as sewing in the other seasons. In a message to the Michigan State Legislature, Governor Sleeper also proposed that the inmates care for "crippled children of indigent parents" at a "hospital school" that he wanted built on the grounds, which would develop the inmates' natural "maternal instinct" and make them more appropriately "softened" and "humanized."

The plan showcased many Michigan progressives' version of women's "proper behavior" in an era of great cultural change and debate. Like many progressives throughout the nation, the prison's supporters and designers positioned women as having natural purity, maternal instincts, and gentleness--values they felt needed to be brought out in the inmates.

In fact, for many progressive women, it was the moral authority stemming from their maternal roles that justified their public and political actions as reformers in an era that otherwise idealized women being confined to the home. Female progressives could claim that their moral authority, ironically derived from their celebrated position as caretakers of the household, gave them a credible voice to weigh in on pressing public issues, from child labor to criminal justice.

Progressive activists often pursued their objectives by shaping the physical settings of people's social relationships. They, for instance, built carefully designed parks and structured playgrounds in urban neighborhoods to encourage residents to develop disciplined personalities in the fast and compact atmosphere of America's cities. The Okemos prison played to that mentality. One proponent of the plan wrote to Governor Sleeper's successor, Alexander J. Groesbeck, that it would "give these women surroundings in which cheerfulness and beauty would be potent factors and could not fail to work their magic results."

The Michigan State Training School for Women project also built on the characteristics of previous and concurrent efforts for prison reform throughout the nation. By the late nineteenth century, reformers established a number of facilities that emphasized female offenders' rehabilitation rather than confinement. Supervised by matrons, prisoners at those institutions undertook domestic labor, attended church, and were shepherded toward the values of middle-class Victorian feminine virtue--even if, by the early 1900s, a number of reformers questioned key aspects of it.

Although leading progressives envisioned reformed prisons offering homelike facilities, accommodations in reality could be dark, cramped, and isolating. The backers of the Michigan State Training School for Women believed that the Okemos prison would be different. With a location in place and promising ideas for its design in consideration, the prison's supporters were optimistic that it would achieve great results. As Elizabeth T. Hitchcock proclaimed in a letter to Governor Groesbeck, "The whole medieval conception of a prison as a place of misery, bad air, cells, bars and torture" has "receded into the background." The Okemos plan, offering a picturesque setting, welcoming layout, and carefully planned social structure, presented an entirely different future.

A Vision Under Threat

Problems with the plan began emerging when construction started in the early 1920s. Despite a total appropriation in the amount of $615,066.70 between 1917 and 1921, the project struggled to achieve the financial backing it needed to reach completion. Using a portion of those funds, the state erected a power plant and bridge over the Red Cedar River, along with soil grading and railroad construction, but the remaining components of the plan, including the residences, had yet to be built.

Expressing great frustration with the male leadership of the board of control that oversaw the process, Betty Wallace Allie, chairperson of the legislative committee of the Ingham County League of Women Voters, noted to the Lansing State Journal that it was not women who made all of the mistakes. On the contrary, it was men who had attempted to place a bridge abutment in quicksand and build the power plant in a mud hole.

In any case, the unfinished project needed further political support to continue. But such support was in question on social and cultural grounds that spoke to the broader tensions of the 1920s. The emergence of a popular youth culture anchored in jazz music, flappers, provocative dances, more revealing women's clothing, and other controversial features pitted modernists, who embraced the changes, against traditionalists, who wanted to bring the nation back to supposedly "simpler times."

A number of people worried that the site of the Michigan State Training School for Women was too close to the supposedly impressionable college students a few miles away at Michigan Agricultural College (MAC), now Michigan State University. Many Michigan residents and organizations, including those that had initially supported the plan for a women's prison, wrote to Governor Groesbeck in protest of the Okemos location.

Mary T. Stevens, an original supporter of the plan since the 1894 Collegiate Alumni meeting, was among the opponents of the site. In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, she declared, "We may safely leave it to enterprising young men to cross the intervening space [between the college and the prison]. Moreover, there is a beautiful winding little river which runs across both the [MAC] grounds and the Okemos prison site. What could be nicer for love trysts and moonlight walks?" Ironically, Governor Sleeper had trusted the prisoners to care for indigent children, but Stevens and many others did not think they could be trusted with college students living close by.

While Stevens' concerns conveyed a belief in the vulnerability of the women prisoners and a desire to regulate their sexual behavior, they also touched on similar anxieties at MAC. During the 1920s, many in the college community lamented the loss of MAC "tradition," a phrase that signified the long-established norms for hierarchy, discipline, decorum, and gender roles among the students. The location of the prison, it was feared, could tempt male students to further compromise their social behavior and, in turn, mount a further blow to tradition.

The Project Falls Apart

Despite Governor Groesbeck's attempt to save the women's prison project, it was in dire straits by the time he left office in 1927. Dismayed by the project's vulnerable status, Emma N. Wanty, a member of the training school's board of control, had written to Groesbeck that the Okemos facility "would give the prisoners the best kind of work in the open for their redemption," and asked, "When will this dream come true?"

Even though division over the location of the prison threatened the plan, it still largely had strong backing from the state's women's and progressive organizations when Fred W. Green became governor in 1927. Among the many groups to contact Green to show their full support for the Michigan State Training School for Women were the Saginaw Tuesday Study Club, the Women's Club of Lapeer, the Ladies Library Association of Port Huron, and the Grand Blanc Twentieth Century Club.

Ultimately, Green promised a full review of the project and appointed a commission to recommend whether it should be continued. After studying the issue and visiting the site, the commission recommended that the project be continued. However, it was soon revealed by the media and in political circles that the commission was divided, leading the state to hold off on further construction and additional appropriations.

By 1928, Wayne County had built a "model reformatory" for women in Plymouth with room for the state's female inmates. With financial struggles, political division, concerns over improper student-prisoner interactions, and an alternative facility available, the Michigan State Training School for Women project fell apart. The Lansing State Journal remarked that the facility "lies dead and buried... with only the gurgling of the river to keep it company."

As the United States endured the Great Depression in the 1930s, the state of Michigan found new uses for what was left of the prison. Civil Works Administration workers moved the steel bridge over the river to a location in Lansing to provide easier access to an Oldsmobile auto plant. The dilapidated powerhouse, which had become victim to flooding and target practice from hunters, was partly dismantled by a Michigan State College (MSC), formerly Michigan Agricultural College, class learning how to use dynamite. Meanwhile, the land continued to be a grazing site for the college's bovine population. In 1939, the land was transferred to the State Board of Agriculture for MSC, and it became the location of a large radio tower in 1952.

In the end, the project for a "model" prison in Michigan became a tale of financial struggle, political division, and culture war. What currently remains of the original project are graffitied bridge abutments, scattered pieces of the power plant in the overgrown brush, and occasional references among locals to the model prison that never was. Embedded in those fragments are the shadows of a bold attempt to harness the potential of both natural and man-made environments to redeem the social and cultural behavior of the state's women prisoners.

By Mark W. Robbins

A native of Okemos, Mark W. Robbins is associate professor of history at Del Mar College and the author of Middle Class Union: Organizing the "Consuming Public" in Post-World War I America.

Caption: The Red Cedar River, which passes through Okemos and along which the Michigan State Training School for Women was to be built, in the early 1900s. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-D4-36703.)

Caption: Renowned reformer Jane Addams was among the progressive activists who discussed the need for a women's prison in Michigan in 1894. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-B2-2582-6.)

Caption: Governor Albert E. Sleeper signed a bill authorizing the Michigan State Training School for Women in 1917. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-B2-3978-5.)

Caption: The power plant and surrounding grounds of the Michigan State Training School for Women during construction. (Photo courtesy of the Meridian Historical Village Archives.)

Caption: Above, left: Governor Alexander J. Groesbeck attempted to save the women's prison project during his time in office. Above, right: Governor Fred W. Green promised a full review of the women's prison project and appointed a commission to recommend whether it should be continued. (Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-B2-5287-14 and LC-B2-4285-14.)

Caption: The abandoned site of the Michigan State Training School for Women along the banks of the Red Cedar River as seen today. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

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Author:Robbins, Mark W.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2019
Words:2113
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