Connecticut State Farm for Women opened 100 years ago in Niantic
East Lyme — In historical black-and-white photos, women at what is now York Correctional Institution pour milk into glass bottles and tend crops in the field, gather near a horse-drawn carriage and dance around a Maypole.
The photos offer a glimpse of what life was like at the Connecticut State Farm for Women in Niantic, which opened 100 years ago and today is the York prison.
The East Lyme Public Library is holding a series of events, including a historical photo exhibit in the lobby of the community center through July, to mark the prison’s 100th anniversary this month and present a variety of perspectives on the institution, library Director Lisabeth Timothy said. “100 Years at The Farm” features events, book discussions, a historical talk, and a presentation by the Judy Dworin Performance Project Inc.
“The prison has an incredible history that has really not been looked at, and the history of the town is very tied in with the founding of the prison,” Timothy said.
Founding the State Farm for Women
As part of the library’s program, Paul Harrison, a former correctional officer at York and a town resident, will present a talk at 7 p.m. Wednesday evening on the research he has compiled on the history of the women’s prison, focusing on its founding in 1918 to when the state Department of Correction took over in 1968.
The institution’s founding has its roots in the suffrage movement, Harrison said.
Following several unsuccessful legislative pushes and attempts by groups to start a facility for women in Connecticut, William B. Bailey, a Yale University professor, became the president of the Connecticut Prison Association and worked with a group that included suffragettes and members of the Daughters of the American Revolution to start the endeavor, according to Harrison.
In 1917, the General Assembly approved a law that would start the “institution for the correction of delinquent women,” according to the first report by the Board of Directors of the Connecticut State Farm for Women. The law stipulated the site had to be at least 200 acres, have woodland, tillable pasture, a natural water supply and “be located reasonably near a railroad,” the report stated. Harrison said the intent was to train the women and help them.
“The key to it was they wanted to make homes for these girls,” he said. “They didn’t want to warehouse them.”
Anne Rogers Minor, who grew up in East Lyme and became the president general of the Daughters of the American Revolution, was in charge of site selection, Harrison said. She proposed farms by Bride Lake in her hometown.
“She would feel comfortable enough to walk up, knock on their door and make them an offer, because they were the townspeople,” Harrison said. “She knew these people. She lived right down the street.”
On July 10, 1918, the Connecticut State Farm opened, with the first inmate arriving on the 13th, according to the initial report from the board of directors.
Women were sent to the institution for a variety of reasons, from having alcoholism to having committed crimes that included “Manifest Danger of falling into habits of vice,” “lascivious carriage,” prostitution, intoxication, delinquency, vagrancy, theft, forgery, neglect of children and impairing the morals of a minor, according to Harrison’s manuscript.
Some of the women were going in and out of the court system, he said. A women’s hospital later was built on the site, prompted by concerns over venereal disease during World War I, Timothy and Harrison said.
In 1926, Elizabeth Munger, who would serve for 21 years as superintendent, instituted a classification system for the women that would earn the institution renown, they said.
Munger “practiced the study of offenders as individuals, thus accomplishing significant rehabilitation goals, which won her national and international fame,” according to a 1963 article in The Day, when a plaque was installed in her honor.
In the 1930s, women who had been held at the Wethersfield State Prison after committing crimes were sent to the Niantic site, according to the state Department of Correction’s website. Prior to moving to Niantic, the women had been in the same state prison as men but in separate quarters, Harrison said. An addition was built and the site was now called the Niantic Correctional Institution, according to the DOC, but people continued to refer to it as the State Farm.
The community had opportunities to visit the site, often called “the Farm.” One such event was a fair held in August 1935 to celebrate Connecticut’s tercentenary that drew a crowd of people. In the early evening, cars “were parked on both sides of the state road for half a mile,” according to The Day’s reports. The fair included a dance floor, a sale of merchandise, wheels of fortune, and displays of livestock and vegetables and some women from the farm, donning colonial attire, were waitresses at the event.
The State Farm became self-sufficient by the early 1940s and started selling milk, butter and cheeses to Seaside, Mystic Oral School and Norwich State Hospital, Harrison said.
“It was a fully functional farm,” Timothy said. “They grew all the food they needed to feed the women and the staff there, with more to spare.”
Women had long run the institution, though five to six male farmhands worked on the property. In the 1950s and 1960s, “society changed” and women were committing higher-level crimes, and male correctional officers were hired, according to Harrison’s research.
In the 1960s, the state stopped the farming operations on the site in an attempt to save money. After the farming ended, the facility instead focused more on educational programs for women, said Janet S. York, the superintendent at the time.
In July 1968, the newly formed Department of Correction took over running the facility, Harrison said. Decades later, in 1994, the site expanded with the addition of a new high-security facility, named the Janet S. York Correctional Institution, in honor of the superintendent from 1960 to 1975 and deputy commissioner for the state Council of Corrections, according to The Day.
The dedication service noted York’s time at the prison “was stamped with a growth of services for women and national recognition that had not been seen since the retirement of Elizabeth Munger,” author and former history teacher James Littlefield noted in writing about York, his stepmother.
The two facilities were combined under the York name in 1996, according to the DOC.
In 2016, the DOC shuttered a men’s unit, the Niantic Annex, that opened at York five years earlier when the J.B. Gates Correctional Institution closed, according to the DOC.
Timothy said that while the women’s prison mirrors the history of prisons in the United States as they moved to an era of mass incarceration, she sees the institution coming “full circle” back to its progressive roots, with programs like a recent mentoring program for young women at York.
The library’s programs includes events that feature the voices of women at York, through a presentation by the Judy Dworin Performance Project and a book discussion of “Couldn’t Keep it to Myself: Testimonies from our Imprisoned Sisters,” written by Wally Lamb and the women at York, as well as book discussions of “The Farm: Life Inside a Women’s Prison,” written by Andi Rierden and “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” written by Michelle Alexander.