Perhaps you have never heard of Katherine Lawes. Katherine was the wife of Lewis Lawes, warden at Sing Sing Prison from 1920-1941.
Sing Sing had the reputation of destroying wardens. The average warden’s tenure before Lewis Lawes was two years. “The easiest way to get out of Sing Sing,” he once quipped, “is to go in as warden.” In his 21 years he instituted numerous reforms – and an important part of his success was due to his wife Katherine.
Katherine took seriously the idea that the prisoners are human beings, worthy of attention and respect. She regularly visited inside the walls of Sing Sing. She encouraged the prisoners, ran errands for them and spent time listening to them. Most importantly, she cared about them. And as a result, they cared deeply about her.
Then one night in October of 1937, news was “telegraphed” between the prison cells that Katherine was killed in an accident. The prisoners petitioned the warden to allow them to attend her funeral bier. He granted their strange request and a few days later the south gate of Sing Sing swung slowly open. Hundreds of men – felons, lifers, murderers, thieves – men convicted of almost every crime conceivable, marched slowly from the prison gate to the bier, reassembled at the house and returned to their cells. There were so many that they proceeded unguarded. But not one tried to escape. If he had, the others may have killed him on the spot, so devoted were they to Katherine Lawes, the woman who daily walked into Hell to show the men a piece of Heaven.
Katherine’s strength was to see the men less as prisoners and more as individuals. Thomas Moore has said, “We can only treat badly those things or people whose souls we disregard.” To treat people well is to honor their souls. To honor their souls is to understand what it means to love your neighbor.
In 1921, Lewis Lawes became the warden at Sing Sing Prison. No prison was tougher than Sing Sing during that time. But when Warden Lawes retired some 20 years later, that prison had become a humanitarian institution. Those who studied the system said credit for the change belonged to Lawes.But when he was asked about the transformation, here’s what he said, “I owe it all to my wonderful wife, Catherine, who is buried outside the prison walls.”
Catherine Lawes was a young mother with three small children when her husband became the warden. Everybody warned her from the beginning that she should never set foot inside the prison walls, but that didn’t stop Catherine!
When the first prison basketball game was held, she walked into the gym with her three beautiful children and she sat in the stands with the inmates.
Her attitude was: “My husband and I are going to take care of these men and I believe they will take care of me! I don’t have to worry!” She insisted on getting acquainted with them and their records.
She discovered one convicted murderer was blind so she paid him a visit. Holding his hand in hers she said, “Do you read Braille?” “What’s Braille?” he asked. Then she taught him how to read. Years later he would weep in love for her.
Later, Catherine found a deaf-mute in prison. She went to school to learn how to use sign language. Many said that Catherine Lawes was the body of Jesus that came alive again in Sing Sing from 1921 to 1937.
Then, she was killed in a car accident. The next morning Lewis Lawes didn’t come to work, so the acting warden took his place. It seemed almost instantly that the prison knew something was wrong.
The following day, her body was resting in a casket in her home, three-quarters of a mile from the prison. As the acting warden took his early morning walk, he was shocked to see a large crowd of the toughest, hardest-looking criminals gathered like a herd of animals at the main gate. He came closer and noted tears of grief and sadness. He knew how much they loved Catherine.
He turned and faced the men, “All right, men you can go. Just be sure and check in tonight!” Then he opened the gate and a parade of criminals walked, without a guard, the three-quarters of a mile to stand in line to pay their final respects to Catherine Lawes.
And every one of them checked back in. Every one!
Photo: Warden & Mrs. Lawes, provided.