1951: A Visit to the New Prison for Women

The following is adapted from a Truth newspaper article in 1951:

'Complete contradiction of the old conception that gaol is a 'snake pit' where prisoners are relegated to solitary confinement for the slightest misdemeanor, or placed on a bread-and-water diet for days on end in a padded cell, is Queensland's new women's Prison in South Brisbane. There women who have infringed the law live without the privileges of free people, yet, are given the meals and opportunity to emerge solid, reputable citizens!

Prisoners in the sewing room, Female Division, Boggo Road, Brisbane, 1951 ('The Truth')

In charge of the women prisoners and the 10 wardresses who watch over them is a charming, personable, attractive widow - as far removed from the traditional idea of a gaol superintendent as the average mother is from Lucretia Borgia!

Matron V. Williams is the mother of two children, is the personification of kindness and friendliness, and has been attached to the female division of the prison for almost six years.

Needless to say, the women prisoners at Boggo road have more than a goodly proportion of vagrants and drunks among their number. But long termers include one 'lifer,' one woman serving a 15 year sentence, and another who will be there for five years.

When a 'Truth' woman reporter visited the gaol recently, there were 14 women completing various other terms of imprisonment. Last year, 254 women worked out sentences in the female division, at one time or another.

On admission, the prisoner is bathed and medically examined, then issued with prison uniform - a royal blue broadcloth frock, white cap, white stockings, and black, flat-heeled shoes. Unbleached calico night dresses and underclothes might not be designed to capture the feminine instinct for pretty things; but at least, they are clean!

There are two dormitories for prisoners, with cells available for those who wish to sleep alone. Strange to say, none of the prisoners make use of these cells, preferring to stay with company, the Matron told 'Truth.'

The dormitories, with bathrooms attached, are very clean and comfortable; no sheets are provided, but a pillow-case and blankets, and well-packed fibre mattresses, are quite comfortable. There is a radio in each dormitory, and this can be used until 'lights out,' at 9 o'clock.

The prisoners are, more or less, allowed to choose what duties they will perform. Some prefer to work in the laundry, others to sew, and two do the cooking. The laundry is a large, airy building where, on the day 'Truth' paid a call, three women were finishing off the ironing of uniforms underclothes, quilts, and other linen, used by the prisoners themselves.

The kitchen is another large room, with a fuel range, hot and cold running water, and long clean work benches.

There were three women sewing in the airy sewing room; here the prisoners make bed linen for public institutions. Most of the sheets and quilts for the Brisbane General Hospital are made by the women prisoners.

The average day of a woman prisoner is: Rise at 6 a.m., be washed, dressed, and have the beds made by 6.30. From 7 until 8.10 a.m., breakfast; at 8.30 the roll is checked, then the prisoners work until 3.30 p.m. with a break for lunch between noon and 1.10 p.m.

At 4 o'clock they go to tea, come out at 4.20, and at 4.30 are locked up for the night, but from then until 9, they are free to knit or read, or listen to the radio. A woman doctor visits the prisoners two days a week and, if the prisoners so wish it, they can be psycho-analysed.

The wardresses we met on the day 'Truth' went to prison, were bright, cheery women who seem to get the best out of the prisoners. Miss M. Drew, who has been in the service for six and a half years, says that she gets more co-operation from the prisoners by treating them as human beings.

To give you an idea of how humane the Prison Department is in its treatment of the inmates, it can be mentioned that when one of the prisoners' sisters died - while still herself in gaol - the department took the surviving sister from prison to the funeral, in an ordinary car, and with a wardress as companion.

So, that, for a woman, is what it's like to be in gaol! All the privileges of free people are taken away, and visitors can only talk to prisoners in the presence of a wardress. But they can send and receive censored mail; there is a library; and, through regular hours, good food; fresh air, and humane treatment, the women, if they like, can emerge fully prepared to start again as good citizens of His Majesty. It all lies with the individual herself!' 

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