Women's History Month: Reflections on Elizabeth Fry

When I began criminal legal reform work nearly a decade ago, I focused on best practices that drive positive outcomes and how Oklahoma was so out-of-line with what other states were doing – all in the “now”. It never occurred to me to investigate the history of prisons and corrections. My daughter, Colette, came to me one day with a book The Value of Kindness The Story of Elizabeth Fry by Spencer Johnson, M.D. and asked me to read it to her. This book was part of an extensive series that I’d had
since I was a little girl, highlighting individuals throughout history who made significant contributions to the world. The time period takes place in the early 1800s.

We read the book together, learning about a wise, strong, and kind woman, who cared tremendously for others – and who did not like what she saw in the treatment of prisoners.

The book described Elizabeth’s first visit to a women’s prison. It detailed women fighting in an “animal” like environment and living in an environment that reflected no hope or purpose. The book explained how the incarcerated women initially threatened Elizabeth thinking that she was there to mock them.

Then Elizabeth noticed a sick baby lying on the prison floor. She picked up the child and cared for it. The book explained that this was the first act of kindness that most of the incarcerated women had ever experienced – they became hopeful with Elizabeth’s kindness. The mothers began to bring each of their children to Elizabeth and she cared for each child knowing that they were a gift.

Elizabeth saw the potential in these women. She began a school inside the prison for the children. Seeing the progress with their children, the incarcerated women wanted to better themselves as well - and Elizabeth made it happen. She began a school for the incarcerated women and taught them how to read and write. She taught them skills they could use to earn a wage that would allow them to choose a life that did not involve crime. She was successful. These women found pride in themselves and their children – they found hope and purpose. They were able to provide for their themselves and their families without risking freedom.

The successes that Elizabeth produced with her kindness, logic, and approach brought invitations for her to present her findings before the House of Commons. Until that first invitation, only the Queen had been invited to speak. Heads of state and leadership across Europe wanted to learn from Elizabeth. She educated and changed laws from being harsh on crime to smart on crime.

Colette wanted us to read this book together over and over. She was enthralled with the sadness and treatment of women and children – and then the ability of one woman’s hope to bring so much change.

Despite the fact that some improvements have been made in the carceral system since the 1800s, these improvements are a far cry from those Elizabeth Fry began. They do not incorporate the possibilities, given the world’s incredible technological advancements and progress over the same 200 years. Elizabeth braved and created the beginning of positive change. Yet we are still fighting the same battle that she started, with not much improvement from the end of her work so long ago.

Elizabeth Fry’s mindset from the 1800s: “When thee builds a prison, thee had better build with the thought ever in they mind that thee and thy children may occupy the cells.” Translation – when local counties and governments build a prison, those determining officials and lawmakers need to picture themselves and those they love potentially occupying the cells. Especially in a state where incarceration is top in the nation, like Oklahoma. We’re not reinventing the wheel with reforms – just trying to continue a legacy created by an amazing historical woman leader.