Women’s Work for Catholic Prisoners: Catholic Lady Visitors to Prisons. 1908

Good old Great, Great Granny RP

32 Curzon Street W.1

About a year ago a Subcommittee of Catholic Ladies was formed, under the presidency of the Duchess of Newcastle, to work under the Catholic Prisoners’ Aid Society. It has issued its first report, which shows a record of good work already accomplished. We give below an account of a meeting held by the Society : Miss Van Wart was “At Home” last Friday, June 12, when a large number of people assembled at 32, Curzon-street, to listen to an account of the work of Catholic lady visitors to prisons. Among those present were the Very Rev. Mgr. Grosch (in the chair), the Rev. Francis Scoles, S.J.., Viscountess Encombe, Lady Mary von Hugel, Lady Chichele-Plowden, Lady Roper Parkington, Mrs. Arthur Langdale (Vice-President of the Subcommittee), Mrs. Arnoux, Mrs. Pulsford Hobson, Mrs. Wegg-Prosser, Mrs. Allpress, Mrs. Blount, the Misses Wentworth, and many representatives of the Ladies’ Settlements.

Mgr. Grosch apologised for the absence of the Archbishop, who was away engaged in the visitation of Essex, and who had sent his blessing to those present and his good wishes for the success of the meeting. Turning to the report, Mgr. Grosch said that he was struck with one fact, namely, that during the past year—the first of its existence—the Subcommittee had dealt with 150 remand cases, and that of these 150 no less than 53 refused the help offered to them. He felt that this fact must strike everyone, and it might perhaps give people a wrong impression and induce them to believe that these 53 were so degraded, and lost as to refuse the hand stretched out to help them.

But this was far from being the case. It meant that probably through lack of sufficient workers these cases had been inadequately dealt with. If there had been more workers there is little doubt that the majority of these 53 would have eventually accepted the help offered. It is not the first visit that tells—never that wins. The work demands extraordinary qualifications on the part of those engaged in it. From a human point of view such qualities as patience, self-discipline, self-sacrifice were the most necessary. There must be the genuine desire to do this work,-the determination to overcome repugnance, and, above all, a deep humility on the part of the worker. It must make no difference to us where the case is, and we must be ready to take it up whether it is convenient or inconvenient to us. We must endeavour to cultivate the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, who taught us that those we serve are conferring a favour upon us, and we must learn to see in these poor prisoners our dear Lord whom we desire to serve.

He felt sure that if there had been many more workers we should not have this blot upon the report—that 53 of the remand cases refused the help that was offered. The convicted cases were, he understood, visited by the Sisters of Charity most usefully and holily. There were, unfortunately, no reports to hand of these convicted cases, and he had heard that such as were in existence were irregular and meagre. He thought that regular and full reports of the work of the Sisters of Charity would be most desirable, and that we should learn a great deal from them. In the case of many of the prisoners, Mgr. Grosch went on to say their whole moral nature had in many instances broken down long before the actual commencement of crime. But we must always remember that they could never go beyond the teach of the grace which is sufficient for all. We owed these poor prisoners human sympathy, care, and personal service.

Mrs. Arnoux, Catholic Visitor to H.M.’s Prison, Preston, was the next speaker, and she gave a long and most interesting address. It was, she said, seventeen years since she had first received her appointment, and she felt that she was still on the fringe of the work. Her advice to the prison visitor was never to despair. There were so many disappointments, and one must remember that God counts the effort and the earnestness of the work, not its failures. She mentioned, with great appreciation, that since Adeline Duchess of Bedford had taken up the work of prison-visiting, she had by her influence overcome many difficulties which used to handicap the visitor. Until she used her influence in the matter, it had never been possible to see the prisoner without a third person in the shape of a warder being present.

Now it was always possible to see a prisoner quite alone, and it was much -easier to win their confidence and to help them. She had found from her own experience that time was needed to win their confidence. At first they seemed afraid and on the defensive and hard. She had found an almost infallible method of softening them, and that was by mentioning the mother. All responded to that. She tried to show them at first how useless was the life they had been leading : to make them ask themselves in what way they were the better for such a life. And afterwards she endeavoured to make them wish to reform for the sake of pleasing God.

First offenders were as a rule easy to deal with. Yet she had found quite young girls often unwilling to go to a home. She was convinced after many years that it was useless to try to get a woman work before she had been to a home. The discipline of a home was absolutely necessary. Sometimes with a very promising case it seemed almost a a pity to do it, especially when the girl herself was reluctant. It was for this reason that she urged the necessity of having a Catholic Shelter as a temporary home for the girls on remand or waiting to be sent to convents.

A Catholic Refuge with a Catholic atmosphere where the girls were brought under the good influence of Catholic women was most necessary in order to carry out the work. There was such a refuge at Preston, and many of the girls who came there for a day or two often pleaded to be allowed to remain. Of course the older women were much more difficult to deal with, but even with these she never despaired, and she was glad to say that they were able to save 50 per cent. even of the old ones. She felt sure with reference to Mgr. Grosch’s speech that had there been such a Catholic Shelter in London those 53 cases who refused help would have been very greatly diminished.

When the women came to her shelter at Preston they were treated as voluntary inmates and made to feel that they had a home to which they could return. She thought that such a shelter should be in the charge of a matron—a voluntary worker, if possible. She did not advise that it should be kept by nuns. In the first instance the girls would not speak much about themselves to a nun, but would do so much more readily to a lady. It was often caused by their deep humility, and because they felt they were too bad to speak to a nun. And when they were in the Shelter they should be made to feel happy and at home, and that they would be welcomed when they returned there after their time at the Convent was over. It was necessary to be very particular as to the kind of situation they were sent to. It should be preferably near the home and with old people. On their free nights they could then spend their time at the shelter where they were given coffee and bread and butter before leaving. The first year of freedom often decided their whole future, and it was most important that they should have a home to which they could go—a Catholic home with a Catholic atmosphere.

The Rev. Francis Scoles, S.J. urged the necessity of prudence on the part of prison visitors. This particular work demanded great prudence, zeal, self-sacrifice, and patience, to wait for the effect of one’s work. A great change had of late years come over the attitude of the authorities towards lady visitors to prisons. When he was working at Millbank in 1881, he had often heard it said that women were no use—they did nothing but talk. In contrast to this he would read an extract from The Times of that morning which gave an account of the Conference that took place on June 10 at the Home Office. It was a Conference of the Association of Lady Visitors to prisons, and it stated that during the past year these lady visitors who numbered about 160 had paid 3,253 visits to the goals and interviewed 15,431 prisoners.

The Chaplain-Inspector of Prisons had said that there was no prison in which the lady visitor was not warmly welcomed by both prisoners and officials; and Mr. Herbert Samuel, M.P., Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs, had expressed on the same occasion his high appreciation of the services which the lady visitors had rendered in the prisons, and remarked with satisfaction that it was one of the features of the time that the State and the voluntary institutions, instead of standing aloof from each other as they did formerly, were joining in mutual help. He pointed out that lady visitors could co-operate with the State and afford most useful and acceptable help in carrying out many of the provisions of the Children’s Bill. He hoped that Catholics would not be behindhand in this most useful and necessary work.

They were no longer labouring under the disadvantages which he remembered in 1881. Then he could remember that all London was in an uproar because Father Hathaway, who served the female prison at Tothill Fields where women undergoing short sentences were detained, gave a prayer book to a poor Irish girl. She was discharged and sent to Jamaica. In those days the Catholic chaplain received no pay ; he had to give his services ; but now he was practically on an equality with other chaplains, at any rate in the arrangements made in convict prisons. If there was a desire on the part of the State to assist voluntary institutions there was also a feeling in the country that if Catholic societies and institutions were worthy they also should be helped. If we lacked a Shelter for women in London the necessity for which Mrs. Arnoux had so warmly advocated, he also wished to point out that a very great deal of useful preventive work was being done in London by the Ladies’ Settlements which, by holding clubs and classes for girls, kept them from the streets, gave them a lift and thus prevented the prisons from being filled.

Mr. Lister Drummond said that after the eloquent address of Mrs. Arnoux to which they had all listened with such deep interest any words from him would seem superfluous. He hoped the work of the lady-visitors to prisons would prove as successful in London as it had been in Preston. He warmly endorsed Mrs. Arnoux’s suggestion for the establishment of a Catholic Shelter. However good other institutions might be, and however well managed, they could not give that Catholic atmosphere which was so necessary. There would be need of many more workers in the near future for it was extremely probable that the Probation Act would be shortly extended to girls, and the Children’s Bill would also open a new field for the work. It seemed to him that it was a question of vocation and be hoped that many ladies possessing leisure and good will would come forward and assist the subcommittee.

Mr. Nolan in proposing a vote of thanks to Mrs. Arnoux said that the Catholic Prisoners’ Aid Society valued very much the help of ladies, and their civilising influence could do a great deal with men prisoners.

Mgr. Gosch moved a vote of thanks to Miss Van Wart for the kind hospitality she had extended to the meeting.

At the conclusion of the proceedings Lady Plowden’s two little girls made a collection in aid of the funds of the Subcommittee, and Miss Van Wart subsequently entertained all who were present to tea.

The above text was found on p.28,20th June 1908 in “The Tablet: The International Catholic News Weekly.” Reproduced with kind permission of the Publisher. The Tablet can be found at http://www.thetablet.co.uk .


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