Margaret Sanger, "Queens County Penitentiary Statement," 6 Mar 1917.
Source: " Mrs. Sanger Flays Miss Davis's Plans, New York Times, Mar. 7, 1917, p. 13."
Summary of Sanger's statement on her release from the Queens County Penitentiary after serving a thirty-day sentence for opening the Brownsville Clinic.
Mrs. Margaret Sanger, her term of thirty days' imprisonment over, left the Queens County Jail yesterday bringing with her what she calls a "message in trust" for the women of New York from the women of the jail. The message has nothing to do with birth control, advocacy of which sent Mrs. Sanger to jail, but, according to Mrs. Sanger, charges of studied cruelty and heartlessness in the treatment of the jail's population. Throughout the message occurs frequently the name of Katherine B. Davis, former Commissioner of Correction and now Chairman of the Parole Board.
Mrs. Sanger says she has determined to deliver her message at the meeting next Tuesday of the Women's City Club, which she has been invited to address and of which Miss Davis is an officer. Miss Davis may not be present, but Mrs. Sanger hopes she will. Miss Davis was out of town yesterday, and so an outline of the charges which Mrs. Sanger will make in her public address could not be submitted to her.
Mrs. Sanger, however, says she does not intend to make any campaign against Miss Davis. She merely regards herself, she explained yesterday, as the spokesman of the inmates of the Queens County Jail--"poor girls"Mrs. Sanger calls them.
"It is not of physical conditions that the girls complained," said Mrs. Sanger, in her home, 246 West Fourteenth Street, after an enthusiastic crowd of her friends and sympathizers had met her at the jail and carried her off to a luncheon, at the Hotel Lafayette, in celebration of her freedom. "It is not of these conditions, though certainly they are sufficiently bad. It is the attitude adopted towards the girls, the atmosphere in which they are compelled to live."
"These are such that every inmate of the jail learns to hate Miss Davis with a bitterness and a depth of resentment that one would scarcely believe possible. Do you know that she cannot enter the men's mess hall? She has tried on one or two occasions and each time has been greeted with cries of 'Get out. Get out.' A keeper told me that, and he told me that Miss Davis got out, too."
"The girls complain that Miss Davis delights in the exercise of authority that amounts to tyranny. For instance, one girl learned that her family, her child and her mother, had been made destitute by her imprisonment, which had deprived them of her support. She pleaded with Miss Davis to release her. Her sentence was an indeterminate one and its length was entirely at the pleasure of Miss Davis. Miss Davis laughed at her request and then the girl begged at least to be told about how long she must remain in jail so that she might, if it were possible, make arrangements to tide over matters until her release."
"'That's one of the beauties of the system--that you don't know,' Miss Davis replied."
"The poor girl told me the whole story. Another begged that her parents be not informed of her plight, and she told me that Miss Davis replied: 'Ha! Ha! You should have thought of that before you got in here.'"
"It was Miss Davis who put up a fine mesh screen in the visiting room so that an inmate can see her callers only through a veil so fine that their features are scarcely distinguishable. Yet in Sing Sing a convict may receive visitors in a comfortable room, where both may be at their ease. Miss Davis removed the knives and forks and crockery and replaced the crockery with tin and agate ware. She did not replace the knives and forks at all, so that now, if you are unfortunate enough to be an inmate, you may tear your meat apart, when you get it, with your fingers. Miss Davis has taken away privileges that the inmates fought for years to obtain. Her idea of prison management and of reform for prisoners seem to be a discipline so harsh and unfeeling that every decent emotion of her victim is killed by it."
Mrs. Sanger said another girl, heartbroken, had told her how a member of the Parole Board had gone to the trouble of a long journey into Connecticut to tell the girl's mother the whole history of her case; how she had been convicted of theft and how she was in jail. Recently, the girl had told Mrs. Sanger, word reached her of her mother's illness, brought on by this news, for the girl had always been enabled to keep from her parents all knowledge of her wrongdoing.
Little of her own experiences in jail would find a place in her address, Mrs. Sanger said, for she had a not unpleasant time, all things considered. Shortage of material had kept the authorities from putting her in the sewing squad, and so all she had to do was to care for her cell. John McCann, the Warden, and Matron Whittaker, she said, were kindly, humane persons, who made the duties of their offices as little unpleasant to the inmates as possible.
"I ought to say that of them," said Mrs. Sanger, "for other prisoners told me that they were the rare exception. But even they would not permit me to lecture to the girls. I offered to talk on any subject, but they said it was impossible. Just think! And those girls had practically nothing to do. There is no provision to educate the prisoners, so that an opportunity for real reform work is lost."
Mrs. Sanger's only real trouble while a prisoner arose over her refusal to be fingerprinted. Throughout her stay in jail Warden McCann tried to get her to submit, and finally on Monday night two keepers tried to force her to submit. They apologized for the necessity of using force, but they persisted, and for more than an hour they tried to force Mrs. Sanger's fingers on to the pad.
"I was bruised and exhausted," said Mrs. Sanger, "though they tried to be as gentle as they could, and at last they went to ask Mr. McCann if they should persist. He told them to do so, but after more resistance they abandoned the attempt. I cautioned them that they had no right to lay hands on me."
Discussion over this kept Mrs. Sanger in jail an hour and a half longer, while some forty persons were waiting for her outside. Meantime Miss Kitty Marion, an English militant suffragette, stood in the prison courtyard and sang suffragette words to the air of "The Marseillaise," the inmates joining in the chorus from the windows.
A testimonial dinner will be given to Mrs. Sanger and her sister at Terrace Garden March 16. She says she will make a lecture tour of the States between New York and Chicago.
Copyright, Margaret Sanger Project