The Van Waters Case

Governor Paul Dever's special commission has now taken over the Van Waters case, to the intense relief of the entire Commonwealth. For many months, the public has been treated to a vicious series of incredible attacks in the press upon a woman who is undoubtedly one of the greatest social workers in the United States. Following these attacks, Miriam Van Waters was dismissed on January 11 as superintendent of the Women's Reformatory at Framingham by her superior, Commissioner of Correction McDowell. She demanded --and got--a special hearing to clear her record, but under a strange sort of law, this hearing was conducted before the Commissioner himself. McDowell was therefore judge, jury, and prosecutor; his decision last Friday to sustain his original findings was hardly surprising.

But even in the recent procedure, the most serious of the charges against Dr. Van Waters was exploded. McDowell claimed that she condoned, or failed to halt immoral activities among the inmates. The evidence, however, proved not only that reformatory officials took all possible measures against homosexuality, but that Framingham's record on this point was outstanding, far better than that in other state institutions under McDowell's department.

With this most damning allegation laid to rest, the Commissioner's case narrowed to instances where Dr. Van Waters had "followed the spirit of the law, not the letter," to use her own words. In the 1932-1948 period, Dr. Van Waters had a free hand in running the reformatory. She treated inmates as students, not criminals; she slowly reintroduced them to society by means of broad indenturing in outside employment, outside education courses, and supervised visits to nearby towns. Her results were brilliant. As many former inmates testified, Dr. Van Waters had literally saved their lives. And as many penologists testified, Dr. Van Waters had done a valuable job of pioneering, and created an inspiring example at Framingham for rehabilitation work all over the world.

Commissioner McDowell, who entered office a year ago, was not in sympathy with Dr. Van Waters' methods. He had been trained along more traditional lines: prisoners were criminals, not students at a boarding-school, and no laxity in observing the law could be condoned by calling it "Special treatment" or progressivism. Last June, he handed down a set of directives to Dr. Van Waters drastically curtailing her program. McDowell claimed that she violated some of these directives; yet the overwhelming evidence showed that she honestly attempted to carry them out. In a few piddling instances, there were good reasons for "non-compliance." Such instances will occur in any organization, and in fairness can hardly be considered "just cause" for the removal of an officer.

Yet most of McDowell's charges are based on technical violations occurring in the 1932-1948 period before he became Commissioner. Every other Commissioner since Dr. Van Waters was appointed fully approved these acts, and it would therefore seem unjust to charge them against her now. If the Grisweld Commission decides that these pre-McDowell acts are relevant, the Commissioner's otherwise puny case will be considerably strengthened, and Dr. Van Waters can be prevented from carrying on her work.

This would be a dubious victory for Commissioner McDowell. His administration will probably prove efficient, and deal out punishment impartially to all prisoners. But the world famous program of Dr. Van Waters was not based on an icy prison mechanism. It rebuilt shattered human lives. the loss of such a program would hurt not only the Framingham Reformatory and the state of Massachusetts, but the intangible ideal of progressive public service with which Miriam Van Waters has become identified.