Criminal demographics were changing. The annual report of 1929 stated that "the number of older alcoholic women coming to us has been smaller than in previous years.... Drug addicts continue to come to us from penal institutions. This is a group where we feel that our assistance can only be limited."
And the racial mix of the population was causing strife within the prisons. WPA noted that its large number of colored girls are appearing before the Women's Court and, to meet this situation, we have [engaged] a trained colored social worker. In 1926, WPA Joined with the Women's City Club and the National Urban League to study "The Delinquent or Neglected Negro Children in New York City." Three years later, WPA provided the first scholarships for black social work students and helped to sponsor the salary of a black social worker in the Women's Court. Hopper Home, which hired a black social worker the same year, was one of the very first social agencies in New York to be integrated.
At the same time, WPA was becoming more involved in the city's criminal Justice system. In 1929, ground was broken in Greenwich Village for a new House of Detention for Women, a building which WPA had advocated for many years. When it opened in 1931, WPA agreed to pay for the services of a part-time psychiatrist and a part-time psychologist because the city was not prepared to do so. The agency was also instrumental in having the first woman appointed as superintendent and, by the end of the decade, had placed a part-time social worker there "as a demonstration of the value of after-care."
The Depression affected the agency as well. It was suggested that it might be necessary to reduce paid staff because of economic pressures. Two social workers at Hopper Home began to work only part time; other staff took unpaid vacations; by the mid-30s the agency had decided to close for the month of August and to help only those in dire need.
Despite these difficulties, WPA managed to sustain itself because of the endowment which it had amassed during its first half-century. Because of these funds, it was not as hard hit during the Depression as were some other relief agencies. It has been said that the Depression did not affect women as much as it did men, but working class women were more likely to be employed in unstable occupations, such as domestic labor, unprotected by New Deal labor laws. And many of these women turned to prostitution.
WPA had been involved in the public debate about prostitution since the turn of the century. They believed that public policy was the most effective way to deal with prostitution and, by the 1930's, thought of prostitution as a social problem rather than as a crime. In 1932, the agency called for the decriminalization of prostitution, supporting a statement by the League of Women Voters: "We believe that prostitution is a social problem, that it should be treated as such, and that, as soon as practicable, it should be eliminated from the Criminal Code; moreover, that it should be handled with adequate provision for medical, psychiatric, and social care."
Nonetheless, WPA's humanitarian approach of providing shelter, counseling, and medical care to prostitutes failed to alleviate a problem that was at heart economic. Social workers often focused on the idea that outside "evil influences" caused women to become prostitutes and that they could be "redeemed" by imposing higher moral standards. In fact, it was more likely that women returned to prostitution in the absence of more viable economic opportunities and more meaningful work.
December 1941: World War 11 brought an end to the miseries of the Great Depression although hardships and deprivations of another ilk beset Europe, the United States and Pacific Rim. Work of the Hopper Home continued unabated; in 1941, Directors noted that they were working with the federal government to "prevent prostitution around army camps." They continued in 1943, "These days we are able to get 'clients' off to a quicker and better start than during the Depression. Work is plentiful, pay higher and there is a greater variety of positions." Because of wartime, the Centennial for the Hopper Home was not lavishly celebrated, but noted and acknowledged in 1944-45.
During the forties, WPA launched a resident after-care program at Bedford Hills, placed a social worker in Women's Court to serve women waiting arraignment, and established a group therapy program at the House of Detention and at the Hopper Home.
Sarah Powell Huntington, great-great-niece of Abigail Gibbons became First Director (president) of the Board in 1957, remaining in that post for ten years and on the WPA Board, in all, for seventy years. Her long commitment to the agency began as a teenager, enlisted by her aunt, Rachel Hopper Powell, to escort released prisoners from prison to Hopper Home and to locate the children of women in prison and report on their general welfare.
The Sixties: a decade of great change in the United States in which we witnessed escalation of war in Vietnam, emergence of the peace movement and flower children, terrible assassinations of public figures, changing sexual mores, and increased drug abuse. In i962, Mrs. Huntington wrote, "Although our numbers are relatively small we arc recognized as a most useful and necessary adjunct to the community;... there is little or no duplication of our services in the city." Four years later she said, "We note a growing appreciation in the community of the need for social rehabilitation of offenders; less detention, prompter arraignment, more probation instead of incarceration, more attention to adjustment before and after discharge..."
WPA by this time was having to dip into its capital to cover operating costs. While it was receiving kudos from city agencies, it was not receiving sufficient funding from them. Mrs. Huntington noted, "The Women's Prison Association is one of the few remaining social agencies in New York receiving as little as 10% of their operating funds from [government] sources. There is a growing number of offenders in the community and perhaps someday there may be increased government support for our skilled care. In the meantime, through our own efforts, we must continue to fill the void in public rehabilitative services." Added her successor, Mrs. Cecily Crawford, "We will continue to look for overlooked ones in our society. Our newest venture, suggested by the New York City Office of Probation, is a special program of counseling and related services for the pregnant offender. We feel their rehabilitation will stabilize a part of the next generation and stop a vicious circle."
For the thousands of women who have lived at Hopper Home, its doors have been a symbol of the chance for a new life. WPA, from the days of Abigail Gibbons, has embraced the belief that people can change - if given the support and skills to become independent and productive members of society.
WPA has represented the opposite of punishment: it has represented the possibility of redemption.
Myriad programs have been created through the years to sustain those in prisons and those fortunate enough to spend time at Hopper Home. These programs have included drug counseling, vocational training, job placement, parenting education for young mothers, help for battered women, and help for women with AIDS. With changing times have come changing needs.
In the late 1980's the agency decided it must find a way to ameliorate the plight of women who wanted to be reunited with their children but had no place to live. It therefore found and rehabilitated an abandoned building on Tompkins Square which opened its doors in 1993 as the Sarah Powell Huntington House. Huntington House, the result of support from public, private, and foundation sources, is a milestone on WPA's long journey in the forefront.
|©1995, 1999 The Women's Prison Association & Home, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of the original 1995 book or of this 1999 web reproduction may be further reproduced or re-transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.|