Sisters of Mercy in Prisons 

Submitted by Yuri Bessonov

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Sisters of Mercy in Prisons 

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Any society throughout the history has had to establish a penal system and deal with the problems of treating criminals and maintaining prisons. In general, conditions in jails have fully corresponded to the approach of the society towards prisoners and reflected public concern in the problem. By the beginning of the 20th century such conditions were regarded more or less bearable in some European countries, while they were terrifying in some other countries until the mid 1960s, when, influenced by human rights watching organizations, the situation changed for the better--sanitary standards in prisons were improved and different systems for rehabilitation of prisoners for their possible future civilian life were introduced. However, even in Western Europe it took centuries before the ideas of humanity and philanthropy started having influence on the prisons' management. Evolution of prisons in European countries has mainly been highlighted by the specialists on law and social studies, while participation of nurses in developing the up-to-date system of treating people sentenced by the societies to spend a part of their lives in jails still remains in a shadow. This survey is an attempt to take a brief glimpse of the contribution of sisters of mercy, members of the first European communes of nurses, to creating adequate conditions for prisoners and changing public's attitude towards rehabilitation of criminals and their possible return to normal life in the society.

From ancient times until the demolition of the Bastille in the course of the French Revolution prisoners were kept in extremely harsh conditions, often chained in heavy shackles, doomed to die sooner or later. In fact, any detention in dark wet stuffy cells, often inhabited by rats, meant slow death of emaciation or diseases for the ones who were sentenced to a few years' imprisonment. No healthy man or woman could survive long detention in dark cellars of jails or hard labor at the places for penal servitude. The medieval societies did not consider seriously any possibilities for the convicts to return to normal life. Contacts of the prisoners with the outer world were often confined only to a short visit of a priest for confession, often done at the moment when a prisoner was in death agony. Public concern about prisons started changing after the French Revolution under the pressure of wide publicity of the reports describing terrifying conditions in prisons and European societies came to understanding that prisons cannot exist just as places for isolating criminals and punishing them by means of hard labor, lousy food and harsh conditions, often accompanied by corporal punishment. Later in the 19th century Western European societies changed their approach to their penal systems as a whole, while people came to understanding that crimes had often been caused by social injustice and poverty. Debates on how to treat convicts in prisons and whether it was possible to convert criminals to law obedient citizens started. Humanistic ideas of the 19th century led to the concept of correction and rehabilitation of criminals. At the same time, industrial development and development of medicine changed hygiene standards for any public institutions, including prisons. The approach towards prison maintenance changed as well. It was accepted that prisoners could not be deprived of elementary basic necessities such as fresh air, clean water, regular washing and change of clothes. However the first steps in this long way were done by a handful of early nurses, whose voices were much too weak to be heard by the authorities, but whose feats of compassion demonstrated examples of truly humanistic approach toward convicts.

It has been known since the medieval times that apart from looking after the sick and poor, the early nurses often took care of the criminals kept in prisons. Examples of such remarkable feats may be found in the biographies of famous early nurses, such as St. Elisabeth of Hungary, also known as St. Elisabeth of Thuringia (1207 - 1231), and in the description about the life and works of St. Vincent de Paul (1580 - 1660), founder and inspirer of a number of the Catholic communes of nurses in France. Although the majority of different Christian charity orders were mostly engaged in taking care of the poor and the sick both in hospitals and at homes, some traces may be found about their activity in prisons as well. For example, according to a description of St. Catherine's Hospital in Paris founded in 1328, nurses of that order were commissioned to visit prisons on certain days and bury the criminals died in prisons1. Another example may be found in the description of charitable feats made by Luisa Le Gras (Venerable Louise de Marillac Le Gras), one of Vincent de Paul's ardent supporters and close associates who founded the commune of nurses called Sisters of Charity in Paris in the beginning of 1630s. Nurses of this commune often visited convicts in prisons and took care of the sick prisoners2. Obviously the early nurses mostly provided some elementary care, read the Holy Bible, and said prayers, trying to soothe the soles of prisoners doomed to spend years in jails. However, those simple deeds were also the first attempts to convince the authorities of the medieval societies that human beings were supposed to remain human beings even in prisons and that even prisoners had right for charity and consolation, disregarding the crime they had committed, before they die.

By the middle of the 19th century the communes of nurses that spread around Europe started playing more and more significant role in public life. These communes not only organized hospitals and took care of the poor and sick, but they also started putting more and more attention to prisons and prisoners. More and more nurses voluntarily visited prisons in order to provide some support and encouragement for the outcast, to soothe harsh conditions by providing essential care of the sick. Besides, they also tried to put the criminals on the right track not only by means of saying prayers and reading the Holy Bible, but involving prisoners in simple works done voluntary The nurses were sure that proper explanation of the main Christian concepts together with feasible labor and education might help criminals understand their transgressions, repent and return to the society to start new life after they were released from prisons.

It seems that the most outstanding example of the nurses' activity in prisons in the 19th century was demonstrated by a few Austrian communes of nurses that had been commissioned to run prisons, which definitely was a revolutionary step made by the Austrian government. Although it might sound incredible today, but according to the descriptions of the Austrian penal system published in Otechestvennye Zapiski 1862 N7 [Sovremennaya Khronika Rossii. P27], 26 out of 57 prisons in Austrian Empire were handed in to the communes of nurses for management. Here is a description of two Austrian prisons based on the report written by Dr. Otsolig, a Russian physician who was commissioned by Russian authorities to study this new experience.
It is very peculiar that the internal administration of prisons, according to Dr. Otsolig, turned out to be the best and the most humanistic in Austria!! Austrian Minister Duke Golukhovsky admitted that the Pensilvanian method of imprisonment [obviously the author meant solitary confinement or one-man cell imprisonment] was the most terrible and described it as “a barbarian method that does not correspond requirements of modern time.” This Austrian minister put into effect an amazingly original and audacious system that may have genuinely beneficial consequences. The system works as the following - prisoners are handed in to nurses who not only look after them but they also provide all the maintenance of the prisons. Dr. Otsolig visited two prisons in Stein and in Neidorf and said that everything he had seen there looked like a fairy tale. First he visited the Neidorf's Prison for women sentenced for different terms of imprisonment varying from one to ten years. When Dr. Otsolig came to see this prison, he found 251 women prisoners and only eight nurses to look after them, including the Senior Nurse and one door-keeper. The nurses divided the prisoners into departments consisting of 40 to 60 inmates, depending on their behavior and on the labor that each of the departments performed. These women were working in groups under the guidance of only one nurse, who was reading aloud selected stories from the Holy Bible. Dr. Otsolig wrote in his report that the Senior Nurse of Neidorf's Prison assured him that eight nurses performed their duties quite well and proved capable to keep more than 200 female prisoners under implicit obedience. In case these women commit any misdeeds, the punishment included rebukes, reprimands, reduction of food ration, and confinement in a solitary cell. However these measures were applied very rarely. On the contrary, nurses treated the prisoners with ultimate gentleness, convincing them with the help of the religious thoughts and trying to engage them into different kinds of labor, handcrafts, and gardening. These means proved to be so efficient that even the unruliest and most dissolute women were sorry to leave the nurses on their release.

Dr. Otsolig was so impressed by all the activities of nurses and by the neatness and cleanness of the Neidorf's Prison that he decided to see some other prisons in Austria. Here is his description of the prison for men he visited in Stein, 12 miles off Vienna. “The prison, which is a three storey building made of brick surrounded by a stone wall, is situated on the bank of the Danube River. At a distance form the entrance to the prison a military detachment has its watch-house with a few rifles in cases, while a handful of guards are watching around the wall. Insides the building there are some corridors with a number of doors leading to the cells for prisoners. We were brought to a reception room and soon Leocazia, the Senior Nurse in charge of almost one thousand male prisoners sentenced to different terms varying from one to ten years, joined us. The inmates were engaged in different activities in rooms and halls. A few rows of looms were placed in one of the halls and a number of weavers were weaving canvas. In a sewing workshop some other inmates were sewing different kinds of clothes, mostly for the military purposes. Besides, the prison has a number of other workshops for shoemaking, lathe work, carpentry, etc. The chambers where the prisoners sleep have 20 to 40 beds in each. There is also a room with a spacious library where the more educated and well behaved prisoners have an opportunity to read books in their free time. The prison also has a school in a separate room equipped with long tables and benches, so that illiterate inmates can learn how to read and write. A quite considerable number of prisoners take part in the prison's choir and there is also a large group of inmates playing musical instruments, who have rehearsals in the school room when they are free from other duties. Huge stockrooms are full with linen, clothes, different stuff for workshops, and the products made by the prisoners. Everything is kept in such a perfect order that one might think he was not in a prison but in a deluxe shop. Two nurses, who work in a special office, deal with bookkeeping and keep correspondence with the suppliers of different materials for workshops and the buyers of the goods produced in prison. Although the office is packed with heaps of different books and papers, everything is performed with ultimate accuracy.

These two nurses were taught accountancy and bookkeeping by some prisoners who used to perform such duties before the imprisonment. The spacious kitchen, where six prisoners were cooking, impresses with shining pans. The food is tasty, while the food for the prisoners treated in the hospital is delicious. In general, ultimate cleanness and strict order are kept in both the prison and the hospital. Wherever we went with Leocazia, the senior nurse who showed us around, she was met with respect and profound veneration. Every time she addressed to a prisoner she called his name and everyone stood up and greeted her with a bow in high respect and gratitude. I was amazed with everything I happened to see in the women's prison, but here in the men's prison I was absolutely astonished by the miraculous powers that enabled this nice and very clever woman, who was no more than 40 years old, to keep such a huge number of criminals in perfect order. There were 845 of them at the moment we visited the prison.

In compliance with the contract concluded between the Austrian government and the St. Vincent de Paul Commune of Nurses, which is in charge of the prison, Leocazia and other 24 nurses of this commune perform their duties on managing the prison, while the Commune takes full responsibility in running the prison. One governmental official is commissioned to help the senior nurse perform police duties. He does it under her strict supervision and besides, he is also responsible for supervising 20 male servicemen engaged by nurses to look after the prisoners while the latter are having baths and in any other cases when women's presence is regarded inconvenient.

The government pays 27 Kreutzer [one Kreutzer was a coin equal to 1/100 of one Gulden] per each of the prisoners, while the nurses take full responsibility for handling the budget, maintaining the prison and providing all the basics for prisoners. According to Duke Golukhovsky, Minister of Interior Affairs, Austrian government is quite satisfied with the success of the new system of maintaining prisons by nurses and it is quite possible that other prisons of the Austrian Empire might be transferred to the nurses' administration, provided the number of nurses increases.

Regrettably, this experience did not last long, though the idea of commissioning nurses for managing and administrating prisons was widely discussed. Later the prisons were governed by the state structures and special staff of prison wardens substituted nurses, while further development of nursing was much closer to the scientific medicine, hospital care, and charity made for the poor. Although this experiment of engaging nurses for keeping prisoners looks as an exceptional example of nurses' works, it demonstrates that as soon as European societies started changing their approach towards keeping prisoners, activity of nurses proved to be very useful.
The nurses' efforts were not forgotten. In the 20th century European societies started organizing systems of keeping juvenile delinquents in a way that looks very similar to the one Austrian nurses demonstrated in the middle of the 19th century and in some countries members of the religious communes of nurses still take part in rehabilitation of prisoners.


  1. Opisanie Nekotorykh Blagotvoritelnykh Obshchin Rimskoi Tserkvi (Description of Some Women’s Charitable Communes of the Roman Catholic Church), Tver 1861. 
  2. Luisa Legra i Sestry Miloseridya (Luisa Le Gras and Sisters of Mercy), Tver 1861 

Ed. Note: Yuri Bessonov is a Russian physician who works as a translator, independent researcher and a freelance journalist in the fields of nursing history and history of hospital care. He has carried out extensive research in the history of nursing in Russia and in some European countries.