Growing Up In Prison

Mary Jo Shannon
Mary Jo Shannon

Most of my friends are unaware that I spent the summer in prison before moving to Roanoke in 1953. During my senior year at Mary Baldwin College, a friend accepted a summer position at the Women’s State Farm in Goochland, Virginia, near Richmond, Virginia and urged me to go with her. I had spent the last two summers as an intern at Western State Hospital and thought this new experience would add to the knowledge I had gained in my study of psychology. So after graduation, Cherie and I headed for that flat steamy countryside where folks carried umbrellas on sunny days for protection from the relentless rays of the sun.

State Farm was true to its name – a real farm where many of the inmates worked to raise fresh vegetables. The food was delicious — for inmates and staff alike. They also operated a laundry, which served the men’s penitentiary in Richmond as well as this facility for women. I remember there was a problem that summer when plans for an escape were intercepted in the laundry exchange between the two institutions.

The State Farm had no bars or fences usually associated with incarceration. It resembled a school with a spacious campus dotted with brick cottages to house the inmates and staff. The administrative building resembled a hotel, with residence and dining facilities for staff members when off duty. Inmates served as waitresses, learning skills that would help them with employment when their debt to society was paid. Inmates were encouraged to go to school, and many received a GED while incarcerated. (Some of the prostitutes were eager to learn; they said education enabled them to charge more when they returned to the street!) Arts and crafts were also taught and a literary magazine was published annually.

What a shock it was when I received a silver key on a beige nylon cord and had to sign an agreement to pay $2000 (and this was 56 years ago!) should I lose it! It was a master key, and if lost, all the locks at the prison would have to be replaced. I kept that nylon cord around my waist, and the key tucked into the pocket of my uniform.  When I went home for a visit, I locked it in my mailbox. We worked thirty days before we were paid, and we had not received a check before we went home for a visit. I recall that Cherie and I had only ten cents left after buying round-trip bus tickets for Staunton. We bought a candy bar and shared it.

I was assigned to the Clinic Hall, which served as infirmary, first aid station and quarantine for new inmates. One of my responsibilities was to record the belongings of each new inmate. This required a trip to the basement, where I unpacked her belongings, listed each item and lit a sulfur candle to fumigate overnight. The next morning I repacked and stored the belongings on shelves where they would remain until their owner was released.

At one end of the long Clinic building, an elderly nurse supervised a nursery with twenty babies, ages ranging from newborn to eighteen months, all born in prison. Their mothers were encouraged to come on Sunday afternoons to cuddle and visit with them. Soon eight more infants would be added to cribs in the nursery, for eight women in the latter stages of pregnancy lived on Clinic Hall — waiting.

At the other end of the building, four tubercular inmates, three white and one black, lived in seclusion.  (This was the only instance of integration at this institution – whites and blacks occupied separate cottages.)  The matron of Clinic Hall, a diminutive lady from Canada, was ably assisted by a strong, outspoken inmate, a registered nurse named Julia.

Staff members were forbidden to ask questions concerning reasons for incarceration, but inmates were free to reveal this information if they wished. Julia boasted that she was serving a life sentence for murder.

“I worked hard putting my husband through medical school, and then he left me and took up with a sweet young thing, so I let him have it!” she said with satisfaction. “When I’m prepping one of these gals for a birth using that big razor, and they ask why I’m here — you ought to see the look on their faces when I say I’m here for murder.” Her sturdy frame shook with laughter as she recalled the incident.

In my second month, I was assigned to relieve the matron for her 45 day vacation. I moved into her room on Clinic Hall, and for 45 days I was almost as secluded as the girls I supervised. Every night at eight o’clock each girl stood outside the door to her room and we all said the Lord’s Prayer together. Then I walked the length of the hall, locking each door, before returning to my room. I could not leave the premises until the following morning. Although a night nurse came to be available if needed, I was responsible for those in my care. I read many books that summer, including the entire Revised Standard Version of the Bible that had just come off the press.

The summer was coming to a close and soon I would leave Goochland for Roanoke, to teach third grade at Crystal Spring Elementary School. I had hoped to observe a birth before leaving, but that seemed improbable. Although three of the eight could deliver any day now, it seemed highly unlikely that it would happen in time.

On the day before my departure, Julia confided that tonight there would be a new baby. I asked her how she could be so sure and she replied, “Because I gave Peachy a dose of castor oil!”

I was terrified! Peachy was a quiet young woman, probably in her early twenties, from Southwest Virginia. What if something went wrong – I felt completely responsible.

After the girls were locked in at eight o’clock, Peachy knocked on her door and asked for help. Her labor had begun. The night nurse asked me to call the doctor, who lived near the prison. When he arrived, he instructed me to hold cotton sprinkled with chloroform for her to breathe when the pains became too intense. I held the cotton with one hand and Peachy’s sweaty hand with the other.

When the doctor said, “It’s a girl,” and placed the wriggling bundle on her mother’s abdomen, Peachy looked up at me and asked, “Miss Shilling, what is your name?”

I replied, “Mary Jo,” and she whispered, “I want to name her Mary Jo.”

I think I grew up on that, my last night in prison.

By Mary Jo Shannon
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