MAY 4, 1948
NEW YORK, Monday—During my visit to England, I drove one day to a lovely old Elizabethan house in Kent which has been taken over by the Government and is being used by the prison commissioners for an experiment—an entirely new kind of home for delinquent girls between the ages of 17 and 21.
The girls are chosen very carefully—not so much according to what their records have been as according to what the prison authorities believe may be the chances for improvement in the future. They began this experiment with a staff almost as large as the number of inmates—6 members of the staff and 7 girls were the first occupants of the house. The number of girls has now grown to 30, but the authorities hope not to take more than 50 at a time.
In the first six months, every girl goes through what is practically a household arts course. In addition, they have plenty of other things to keep them busy. Under the old gardener who was on the place before the war, they cultivate about three and a half acres of vegetable garden. Fruit trees have been pruned and the boxwood hedges have been cut. Rabbits, goats and pigs are another responsibility the girls have undertaken. They have laid out a miniature golf course and there is a croquet ground on a smooth lawn. Carrying dirt on their backs, they have made a tennis court.
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Nothing is locked in the house except the front door at night. The atmosphere is unbelievably unlike that of any prison I have ever been in. The girls' manners and their welcome were natural and warm. They were delighted to show me their house. Every room had flowers in it, and it was hard to believe that prison records were somewhere in the governor's office.
At the outset, the house was almost completely unfurnished, had deteriorated in every possible way, and had to be rehabilitated. They began by using the big open fireplace in the entrance hall for all of their cooking! Gradually, they equipped the kitchen and all the other rooms. There is no central heating, but they now have some gas stoves installed in some of the old fireplaces. The laundry is furnished with the kind of equipment a girl would be apt to have in her own home. And when they get around to it, the old riding hall is going to be turned into a gymnasium, which will be valuable in winter for indoor sports.
The girls have been accepted by the community and have become a part of the community. The villagers, happy to have the old manor house restored and occupied, have welcomed its occupants as neighbors. Some of the girls sing in the choir of the old village church, which is practically in their backyard. Choir practice is held in the house every Friday night.
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Miss Hooker, head of this institution, is a very remarkable person and runs it on completely democratic lines. There is a weekly meeting at which the girls make any rules they think necessary, and there is no punishment for any offense.
It was to me a remarkable institution, and I was told that there is a similar one for boys in a much larger historic mansion, where some 80 boys are now living. It is acknowledged that all this is an experiment, and it is certainly a courageous one. One hopes that it will succeed, for it gives these girls and boys far better preparation than is usually given for resuming life as members of a community.
One young girl whom I met is going to take up market gardening when her date for leaving comes. They told me that many of the girls, on leaving, take positions in nursery schools, and they are now trying to install at the institution a training course for the work in such schools. There are already evening classes in academic subjects and in musical and dramatic appreciation.