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Copyright 1999-2013,
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The Blue Book of Iowa Women A History of Contemporary Women

Compiled by Winona Evans Reeves, 1914.


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Mrs. J. C. Sanders

Laura Snider Sanders is doing a unique service for this state, in aiding her husband in his work of making men over, of changing the lives and the view-point of the hundreds of men whom the laws of Iowa give into his charge because they have violated those laws.  She is the wife of the warden of the Iowa penitentiary at Ft. Madison who was the first man to try the honor system in a penitentiary.  It had been tried to a limited degree in the reformatories and juvenile courts.  That the plan has justified itself is proven by the prisoners who almost never break their faith with the warden; and by the records of the men who have left the prison by pardon or expiration of sentence;  of these by far the larger per cent are leading straight and honorable lives.  They have gone out with a different conception of duty and citizenship than they had before meeting warden Sanders and his wife.

Prison experts from all parts of the U. S. and some from abroad come to study warden Sanders' methods, and so prisoners everywhere are benefitting from his ideas and ideals.  He began by making the prison itself more sanitary.  He asked his wife to look into the housekeeping and to the food given the prisoners.  Under her supervision many changes were made, the men now eat supper in the dining room instead of a bite in their hand taken to the cell.  All that soap and water can do for the place was ordered and now it is clean and wholesome.  She planned meals of good and well-cooked food.  The kitchen dietary daily will excel any we ever scanned for so large a number of persons.

Fifty men were interviewed and found stolid and stupid and wellnigh forgetting how to speak and think;  they were gloomy and had many of them lost their identity.  He ordered the men called by their names.  To reawaken the minds of many of the men, who were somewhat competent, he organized a debating and literary society which meets regularly each week and has proven a great factor in keeping up the mental life of the prisoners.  A regular Lyceum lecture course was established, this Iowa prison being the first penal institution in the world to have a full lecture course of platform speakers and entertainers.  Saturday afternoon after the labor hours of the week are over the men are allowed a game of base ball.  This alone goes a long way in the matter of good discipline as only those who have a clean record for the week are entitled to the privilege of the yard games.

Mrs. Sanders is a firm believer in the open policy, as it is called, at the Iowa prison.  It came about in this way:  One day the warden was in the hospital and said to an inmate there who had a pretty bad record,  "What would you do, James, if I gave you a job outside the walls?"  "I'd run like hell, warden."  This was a disappointing reply, to the man who had wished for months that he dared try putting men on their honor outside the walls.  At the end of the week the prisoner left the hospital, but asked the privilege of speaking to the warden, and said, "I have been thinking over the answer that I gave you a few days ago, warden;  of course I know you did not mean to give me a job outside, but I want to tell you now, that if you trusted me enough to give me a job outside the walls, and without a guard, I'll cut off my right hand before I'll do you dirt, in trying to run away."  So he experimented with this man, and let him take the cow to a pasture two miles away, every day, and to care for the lawn around the warden's house.  The man never for a moment broke faith.  This led to the full persuasion to give other prisoners the same chance.  Picking his men carefully he applied the honor system to one and another until now on many a day there are from 150 to 200 men working outside the walls with guards or overseers, who go unarmed.  The prisoners cultivate 700 acres of land.  All of this has been brought about in six years.

The warden and his wife have thus earned the confidence of the State Board of Control, and of the thinking citizens of the state, and the respect and devotion of the prisoners in their care.

Mrs. Sanders was born in Kilbourne City, Wis., near the dells of the Wisconsin river, the daughter of Henry Randolph and Eliza Christy Snider.  Since her marriage she has lived in Iowa.  In the church and social life of every city, where they have lived until coming to the warden's position, she has been a real factor and a great help.  As a family they are church people, being communicants of the Presbyterian church in Ft. Madison.  She is a prominent member of the P. E. O. sisterhood, and a past matron of the Eastern Star order;  besides at other times identified with the Federated Woman's Clubs of the state.  Her inspiration, encouragement and faith have entered into all the work which has been done by that very unusual man, her husband.



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