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Historically Yours: Katie Richards O'Hare, prison reformer

Elizabeth Davis
Special to Boonville Daily News

Not all prisoners in the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) in Jefferson City were criminals nor were they all from Missouri.

Following America’s entry into World War I, Congress passed the Federal Espionage Act of 1917. Upheld by the US Supreme Court, it ruled that the danger posed during wartime justified the restrictions on First Amendment rights to freedom of speech placed by the Espionage Act.

Katie Richards O’Hare became Chairman of the Socialist Labor Party in1917. Criss-crossing the US, she spoke out against the war. In July 1918, she spoke in Bowman, North Dakota. There she was indicted under the new law, convicted of espionage, and sentenced to five years in federal prison. At the time, there were no separate federal prisons for women, so O’Hare was transferred to the penitentiary in Jefferson City which did house women prisoners.

The large prison population at the penitentiary allowed the prison to serve as a labor center with many industries on site. O’Hare was forced to work 50 hours a week in a clothing factory and prohibited from communicating with her husband and four children.

O’Hare was released in 1920 when President Wilson commuted her sentence. She was later granted a full pardon by President Coolidge.

Out of prison, O’Hare still was an activist, but her focus had changed.

After her experiences at the penitentiary, she now advocated for prison reform. In 1939, California Governor Culbert Olson appointed her Assistant Director of the California Department of Penology. Her reform efforts had a major impact in California and many of her reforms were implemented throughout the country.

Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to