Six-Month Fight Ends In Van Waters Ouster
Clashing Philosophies and Headline Attacks Led to Dismissal of Famous Penologist
"Massachusetts is on trial!" This snatch of rhetoric would up both the final remarks of Dr. Miriam Van Waters' attorney last Tuesday, and the next-to-last stage in the case of Commissioner of Correction Elliott McDowell versus the head of the Women's Reformatory at Framingham. The final decision now rests with Dean Griswold of the Law School and the other members of governor Dever's newly-appointed commission and although Massachusetts may or may not be on trial, many of its citizens have a seething concern in the Van Waters affair.
Most of the seething has been on Dr. Van Waters' behalf. When Commissioner McDowell announced on December 27 that he was going to fire her, public sentiment mounted quickly and burst forth in the open hearings held before McDowell in the State House from January 13 to February 8. Most of the spectators were strong Van Waters partisans and didn't try to suppress their feelings, it looked to them as though the case was a shameless example of political muggery, for the defendant had a long and brilliant record in reformatory work; she was internationally famous for progressive techniques in treating delinquents.
The charges against her were grave: that she had violated state laws, and that she was indifferent to wide-spread immorality among the inmates. But the outrageous attacks upon Dr. Van Waters for many months before McDowell dismissed her had convinced many that not only the charges themselves but the motives behind them were suspect. These attacks were carried out through the agency of two Boston newspapers, and the two men who had been investigating the Reformatory last year were mysteriously tied up with the papers. One "prober" was McDowell's deputy, Frank Dwyer. The other was State Senator Michael LoPresti, who had touched off the whole affair back in May.
Inmate Hangs Herself
On November 10, 1947, an inmate at Framingham hung herself with a knotted bedsheet from a sprinkler pipe in her bedroom. Senator LoPresti and a lawyer who represented the girl's parents demanded an investigation. When the district attorney confirmed the original verdict of suicide last May, LoPresti went to the Department of Correction. he also went to the Boston American, which obligingly slapped his allegations on page one.
The first LoPresti story was headlined GIRL SLAIN, with a subhead "Senator Charges," LoPresti accused Dr. Van Waters of attempting to hush up the "murder," and produced a pathetic statement from the girl's parents to the effect that the "victim" wanted desperately to live, and could not have committed suicide. LoPresti himself stated that he had seen signed statements about beatings the girl was alleged to have received, "and about what happened in Dr. Van Waters' little iron curtain empire on the day of the murder." But in spite of certain dubious evidence that LoPresti produced in the American, even the Department of Correction later agreed with the suicide verdict, and did not bring the matter up in the charges against Dr. Van Waters.
An Awful Mess"
LoPresti also made plain his views on penology. "Everybody seems to agree that the institution there (Framingham) is in an awful mess. But, they all add,what can you do about it?" he complained. He had opposed Dr. Van Waters' methods "in legislative hearings and from the floor of the Senate," but "no previous Commissioner has dared to differ with Dr. Van Waters. Even members of the legislature kowtow to her." LePresti's interest in Framingham was hardly limited to an investigation of the suicide. He felt that the Reformatory was a sinkhole of immorality and favoritism, and he was not reticent in telling readers of the American about it.
The Senator said that McDowell, who had taken office three months previously, was not going to be another cringing Commissioner. McDowell had responded to LoPresti's pressure by sending Deputy Commissioner Dwyer out right away to "probe all phases of this crime," as LoPresti put it. McDowell also opposed Dr. Van Waters' methodology, LoPresti claimed, and the new Commissioner's LoPresti claimed, and the new Commissioner's record indicated that he had been trained in more traditional ways of running reformatories.
Dwyer made a quick investigation of Framingham, without bothering to keep in touch with the reformatory officials. He interrogated inmates privately, and Dr. Van Waters testified last month that his questions were "shocking" and reduced many girls to tears. He had asked "indecent questions" about the relationships between inmates, officers, and workers. In one instance, Dwyer questioned a released inmate who was so drunk and drugged when he talked to her that later she couldn't remember what she had said. Dwyer's report was handed to McDowell, who passed it on to Governor Bradford early in the summer.
Inmates Aren't Students
On June 4, the Commissioner Began to lay down his own concept of reformatory work to Dr. Van Waters. He sent her a number of directives that severely cut into her rehabilitation program. Dwyer complained that new inmates shouldn't be told they are "students" when they enter. That was falsifying their legal status, he said. According to the McDowell Dwyer concept, inmates were prisoners, and must be treated accordingly. That meant no special treatment of special cases (which to Dwyer looked like favoritism) and no liberal graduation of inmates back into society (which looked like dangerous laxity regarding "hardened criminals"). Indenturing, movies, trips--all were forms of therapy which shocked the traditionalists. Several outstanding penologists and social workers who testified this month definitely were not shocked. They agreed with Dr. Van Waters, who remarked that McDowell's June directives "turned the clock back a quarter of a century."
LoPresti was apparently unwilling to leave investigations up to the Department of Correction. By June 15, he had persuaded the Legislature to set up a commission to look into Framingham. This commission subsequently gave him considerable trouble. He claimed that the three non-legislative members appointed by the Governor were pro-Van Waters, and intent on whitewashing her administration. The commission met a couple of times and visited Framingham, but refused to give LoPresti's accusations any support. In November, the commission decided that the new Legislature would have to finish the job. Over LoPresti's violent protests, Dr. Van Waters got a one-day hearing on November 22, at which she had a chance to defend here self. LoPresti angrily charged that Governor Bradford delayed commission activity and "coerced" it into giving the hearing. Nothing conclusive came out of the whole affair.
Meanwhile, the "Secret" report of Deputy Commissioner Dwyer had broken loose in the Boston Post. The American also procured large sections of that document, and printed it in installments. Just how these newspapers got hold of the report was never revealed, but it made sensational reading. There were "Shocking revelations" of homosexual activities at Framingham, where laws were "flouted" and the state of Massachusetts "mocked." The report claimed that discharged inmates who had formed: emotional attachments" at Framingham were allowed to return for weeks at a time. In his charges against Dr. Van Waters, the Commissioner included such a case. The evidence showed, however, that the former inmate returned not because of untoward "attachment," but to encourage a life prisoner at a time of emotional crisis. This was psychiatric treatment of which the ex-inmate was highly praised by Reformatory officials.
Hearst Gets an "Expose"
The most prominent American reporter assigned to the Van Waters case was James J. Delaney, whose name popped up in the recent hearing before McDowell. Dr. Van Waters' attorney, Claude B. Cross, accused Delancy of obtaining the name and address of an indentured inmate from the Commissioner's office, and attempting to interview and photograph her under false pretenses. It was an interesting instance of the American' journalistic methods, and for a lot of people, it made the odor of the Hearst tabloid's earlier effort at "exposes" with the Dwyer report more pungent.
Homosexuality wasn't the only feature of the Post-American stories, although it was certainly the most outstanding. As quoted by these papers, the Dwyer report made a great point of special therapy for individual inmates, which was termed "favoritism." The administration had its special pets, Dwyer had apparently discovered, and allowed them comparative freedom, a dangerous departure from standard prison routine. The charge that some Reformatory officials had prison records was supposed to be damning, but as it was later pointed out, if the state of Massachusetts refused employment to "ex-convicts," private business might be inclined to follow suit.
The activities of Dwyer and LoPresti built up a tremendous furor by the end of the year. After first denying reports that he planned to fire Dr. Van Waters, Commissioner McDowell advised the press that he would make a decision on December 27. On that day, he conferred with Governor Bradford, and announced that he would dismiss Dr. Van Waters when Dever took office. When reporters inquired if he had informed her of his intention, he said: "I guess she will find out when you fellows print your papers."
The notice of dismissal came on January 7. Dr. Van Waters immediately demanded a hearing, which began six days later in a highly partisan atmosphere. Dr. Van Waters was applauded each time she entered the auditorium in the State House; McDowell was frequently hissed. The charges trotted out by the prosecution were staggering, but the evidence introduced was not. The prosecutors brought up only three overt instances of homosexuality; two of these were never reported to responsible officials. The third instance was handled quickly and with the best psychiatric advice.
The defense proved on the other hand that Framingham's record on morality was a good as anyone could expect. Almost all of the technical law-breaking was done under previous Commissioners, who had approved Dr. Van Waters' actions in full. On all else, McDowell was left with a handful of questionable instances. Dr. Van Waters never had her subordinates take an oath of office. One inmate had possessed a key in violation of the law, although testimony brought out the fact that she was working in apart of the institution where she needed the key in order to got into the bathroom. But the Commissioner evidently felt that he did have "just cause" for dismissing Dr. Van Waters. At the end of the hearing, he dropped only a few of his charges.
The case thus far rests on technicalities. Public feeling does not however, and if the decision of the Griswold Commission is against Dr. Van Waters, unless important now evidence in introduced, most of Massachusetts is going to be ashamed and sorry to lose her