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Warden’s Gift Blossoms Into Foundation

December 1, 2002

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GOOCHLAND, Va. (AP) _ When prison warden Elizabeth M. Kates died in 1965, she left a legacy that would give countless women a chance to turn their lives around.

The warden and founder of the Virginia Correctional Center for Women bequeathed $9,000 dollars _ one-third of her estate _ to an educational foundation she had created to allow inmates to study behind bars.

With the help of donations, some anonymous, the foundation has blossomed and poured funds estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars into enriching the lives and minds of prisoners.

``It’s now or never to get myself right, and every opportunity they give me here, I’m going to take it,″ said inmate Michele Appleton, who aims to eventually earn a college degree.

Over the years, the Elizabeth Kates Foundation has paid for college correspondence courses, purchased tapes, records, art supplies, televisions, books and choir robes. It has provided Christmas presents for all inmates and graduation gifts for those completing General Educational Development and other academic programs.

``It had to be somebody with a lot of love in their heart do something of that magnitude,″ said inmate Helen Whiteside, who is taking an American history course.

Friends and former colleagues describe Kates as a visionary, a ``practical dreamer″ who could be as stern as she was generous.

``You couldn’t fool her. She was not a lady to mess with,″ said Betty Ann Dillon, a psychologist who worked at the prison in the 1960s.

When she founded the facility in 1932, Kates’ views on the role of prisons were ahead of their time. State funding provided for inmates’ basic needs, but she wanted money for addition services such as vocational training.

Kates established her foundation in 1942 with members of the sorority she joined as a student at Bucknell University. Since then, it has helped educate thousands of women and its assets have grown to nearly $80,000. Prisons nationwide now have educational programs, but Kates’ was among the first.

``(Kates) realized they were never going to get a new start without help,″ Dillon said.

In past two years, anonymous donations totaling $15,000 have allowed the foundation to bring in college professors to teach courses at the prison. Forty-four inmates are enrolled.

When Kates opened the prison there was only a stucco building for the prisoners and a small frame cottage for the staff. She helped design a prison with stately brick buildings, manicured grounds and towering trees.

Kates even opened a prison nursery where inmates who gave birth after entering prison could care for their children for the first two years. Today, the foundation pays for a parenting program that organizes prison visits for inmates’ children.

The Virginia Correctional Center for Women is unique among Virginia prisons because it has never been fenced in. Yet there have been only a handful of escapes since it opened 70 years ago.

Kates never married and had no children. She lived on the prison grounds, a requirement for prison wardens at the time, and retired in 1964, the year before her death.


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