Grace Carlson Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Grace Carlson

An Inside Story – Conditions
of Women in American Jails

(16 June 1945)

From The Militant, Vol. IX No. 24, 16 June 1945, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For the past couple of weeks, the publicity committee in charge of my national tour has been Urging me to include some material about prison life in this column. This would serve as something of a “preview” of the tour speech on “Women in Prison.” The committee argues that giving “previews” is a good advertising technique and I’m sure they’re right.

For this purpose, I thought that some stories about the jails in which I stayed before I was taken to the federal prison at Alderson, West Virginia might be of interest. Fifteen of the 18 prisoners in our case surrendered in Minneapolis on December 31, 1943 and were taken to the Hennepin county jail. The 14 men were transferred to the Sandstone federal prison the next day but I was kept in the Hennepin county jail until January 9, 1944.

Life in Jail

Here are some excerpts from a letter which I wrote to Evelyn Anderson, acting secretary of the Civil Rights Defense Committee on January 7. (The letter was dictated to a Minneapolis friend who came to see me on one of the visiting days):

“Mr. Litel, a U.S. deputy marshal was in to see me just an hour or so ago to say that we shall probably start for Alderson by car this coming Sunday. I will confess that I do not look forward to a three or four-day car trip with a flatfoot but he tells me that it was impossible to get train reservations until the 20th of this month.

“I refrained from asking what the U.S, Government had been doing from Nov. 22 – when they knew we were going to surrender – until today! Sometimes. I think that the money which we taxpayers have been pouring into the U.S. Treasury is being squandered by a lot of lazy bureaucrats!

“I shall be glad to leave here, though, and get into some kind of a routine at Alderson, despite the fact that I have enjoyed visits from Dorothy, Elaine, Bea, Winnie and other friends. They have kept me supplied with books, clean clothes and even some candy and cookies. They tried to have other foods sent in, but were told that it was against the rules. I tell you this so that you will know that the local defense organization was on the job and did the best they could.

Potatoes Galore

“The things they brought helped a great deal. I do not have much praise for the food here. I don’t believe that I have eaten as many potatoes in the past five years as I have eaten here – twice a day without fail! The forces of law and order in Hennepin county do not ‘season’ their ‘justice’ with very much ‘mercy’.”

But I lived to learn that the accommodations which the Hennepin county jail provided for its “guests” were quite superior to those of many other such county “lodging houses.” Here are some excerpts from my first letter from Alderson, dealing with the county jails with which I became familiar on the trip down to West Virginia. It was written to my sister Dorothy on January 16 – the first letter-writing day after my arrival at the prison on January 12. (All of the information I had accumulated and the impressions I had received since leaving Minnesota had to be reported about on one single piece of ruled prison paper. To an awfully wordy person like me, this seemed like a terrible persecution!):

Trip to Alderson

“So many things to say; so many questions to ask and so little time and space in which to do it all! Well I’ll just do the best I can.

“The trip down was not a happy one, although Mr. Litel and his wife really tried to be friendly. They are simple, folksy souls who call each other “Ma” and “Pa.” But we drove for much of the way along the same route which Bea, Elaine, Ray and I took last year. We even ate at some of the same places, so the comparison was a pretty sad one.

“We were on the road three nights. They stayed at hotels; I stayed in county jails – one night in Madison, Wisconsin; the next in Lebanon, Indiana; the third in Huntington, West Va. I do not have space to give you complete details, but I have come to appreciate the superior qualities of Hennepin County Jail – relatively speaking.

“Neither the Madison or Huntington jails had springs, just steel slabs. The Huntington jail didn’t even have pillows or sheets, nor private cells (8 in a room), nor a sheltered toilet. BUT, it did have cockroaches and other species of small animals! I didn’t even take off my clothes – just used my pajamas for a pillow and my robe for a blanket.

“The poor devils in the cell with me looked like characters out of Tobacco Road. When I left in the morning, I gave them some cosmetics, soap, a towel etc. – not much to do, but the best I could.

“Conditions at Alderson are quite different. The buildings are of red brick, trimmed in white and are excessively neat and clean ... One of the big occupations here is cleaning up and straightening up. Even so great an exponent of Cleanliness and Order as I am feels the strain of it a little bit. But I know that in organizing the lives of over 500 girls, many of whom have not been exposed to much training in these things, pretty strict rules have to be laid down. And I was never one to let my own selfish interests stand in the way of the ‘common good’...

“Please send me a flock of bobby pins immediately, also my curlers. I really need them. I fixed my hair yesterday by means of two paper, flips, two combs and paper – not so awfully bad, but not so awfully good, either! And tell me what has been in the papers about the dissolution of the Communist Party. I haven’t seen a paper for days. So what with that and other lacks, I am not excessively happy, but neither am I terribly uncomfortable. People often put up with much more for much less reason.”

I think that talking about prison is going to be much more fun than living in prison!

Grace Carlson Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers’ Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 31 October 2018