To Honor their Souls
By Steve Goodier
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.
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