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Prisons: Prisons for Women - History

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: Prisons for Women - History, The Contemporary Prison, Co-corrections, Prison Subcultures, Population Increases, The Composition Of Women's Prisons


Throughout history, the female criminal has been cast as a "double-deviant"; first, because she violated the criminal or moral law and, second, perhaps more importantly, because she has violated the narrow moral strictures of the female role within society. In almost every Western society, women have been cast as second-class citizens, subservient to the will and wishes of men. Women who violated the law, then, also violated their subservient position and were seen as morally suspect as well as criminal. Prior to the development of prisons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, punishment for women and men took a variety of forms: Serious offenders were put to death by hanging or burning, or banished from their community or sold as slaves. Belknap notes that in the Middle Ages, for example, women who committed adultery or killed their spouses were commonly burned to death. Less serious offenders were subjected to physical punishments such as whippings, stocks and pillories, or branding; and social punishments including public humiliation and shame. For women, mask-like devices, called the brank or bridle, were used in England up until the 1800s and were designed to punish and control outspoken women who gossiped or disobeyed their husbands.

Although death and physical torture remained in use, Western society began to consider alternatives to them in the nineteenth century. Houses of correction, workhouses, and transportation to colonies were precursors of modern confinement and served to bridge the gap between the death penalty and the contemporary prison. The house of correction and the workhouse were designed to address the moral failings of the underclass. In their various forms, these institutions were used to confine less serious offenders, including penniless women and prostitutes. Women could also be sent to bride-wells, poorhouses, or nunneries by fathers or husbands who wanted to punish the unruly, disobedient, or unchaste woman. These early modes of imprisonment attempted to combine punishment for past wrongdoing with attempts at reforming future behavior. Transportation developed in western Europe, most notably in England, as another alternative to the death penalty. In the 1700s, England transported over 60 percent of the convicted offenders to work as indentured servants in the colonies in America and Australia. Historians estimate that between 12 and 20 percent of those transported were women, who were typically convicted of crimes relating to poverty or sexual behavior. Ironically, women were transported to the colonies were often used as prostitutes or mistresses to meet the demand for sexual partners—willing or not—in these rough new worlds. Those escaping forced prostitution were indentured servants to the managerial class. About 24,000 women were transported to Australia between 1788 and 1852.

The penitentiary was the next step in the evolution of the prison. Dungeons, castles, and the like had been used for centuries to confine wrongdoers until physical punishment could be delivered. The penitentiary, however, was the first attempt to use confinement as the punishment itself. In England, one of the first models for the modern prison was intended to provide a place of penance for prostitutes. This radical experiment was based on principles of separation from the moral contagion of their former lives, religious contemplation, and rigid structure. Up until the late 1800s, women, men, and children were confined together in these attempts at correction, often with no provision for food, clothing, or bedding. Those without families or other means of support lived in brutal and unsanitary conditions. Women often resorted to prostitution with more propertied inmates or officials to survive. However noble in principle, most of these attempts at correction failed. Overcrowding, lack of adequate funding, a corrupt and untrained guard force, and little real commitment to the ideal of reforming the underclass contributed to this failure.

The history of prisons took a new turn in the American colonies. At the end of the American Revolution (1783), incarceration was relatively uncommon. The crimes committed by women were—and continue to be—fewer and less serious than those committed by men. For the female minor offender, public humiliations, such as the ducking stool, the stocks, and the "Scarlet Letter," were delivered to those behaving outside the authority of men as well as those breaking the law. Corporal and capital punishment continued to be the primary forms of punishment for serious crimes but new ideas about punishment and reform gained a foothold in the American colonies. By the 1820s, the American solution to crime was the American penitentiary. Based on the principles articulated in England, the American penitentiary flowered during the Jacksonian era. Two similar models took root between 1820 and 1840—the silent and the congregate systems. Both models used work, discipline, religious contemplation, and separation from the free world to attempt change in the convicted criminal.

Few women were confined in the emerging penitentiary system. While only about 4 percent of the U.S. prison population was female by 1950, most scholars agree that these few imprisoned women did not benefit from this experiment in reform. Robert Johnson states that women and minorities were "barely considered human" (p. 32), and thus not fit candidates for the penitentiary's regime. The few women imprisoned in the early 1880s were confined to traditional prisons that offered no plan for reform. Pollock-Byrne (1986) describes these places of confinement as having little regard for the safety and health of the woman prisoner. Like the first houses of correction, prisons for women in America were dirty, crowded, unsupervised, and without adequate bedding, food, and other provisions. Women were often locked away in rooms above the guardhouse or mess hall of the male prison with little access to workshops and exercise yards. Often left without supervision, women were vulnerable to attacks by one another and the male guards. Male staff and prisoners alike sexually abused women in these early prisons. Freedman argued that women were subjected to the "worst debasement at the hands of prison officials and guards" (p. 60) and that sadistic beatings, rape, and illegitimate births combined to make the prison experience even more terrifying. Dobash, Dobash, and Gutteridge conclude that, "From the very beginning, women in prison were treated very differently from men, considered more morally depraved and in need of special, closer forms of control and confinement" (p. 1).

While Elizabeth Fry began her work to reform the conditions of English women's prisons in 1816, the reformatory movement in the United States developed later in the mid-nineteenth century. Prisons for women then diverged into two directions, custodial institutions and the reformatory (Rafter, 1986). The custodial model was the traditional prison, adopting the retributive purpose, high-security architecture, male-dominated authority and harsh discipline of the male prison (Rafter, 1985, p. 21). Many women remained confined to the male prison, with little regard to their gendered needs. The reformatory, in contrast, was a new form of punishment designed specifically to house women in entirely separate institutions, with female matrons and programs planned to reform women by promoting appropriate gender roles. Training in cooking, sewing, laundry, and other domestic arts were designed to return the woman prisoner to free society as either a well-trained wife or a domestic servant. The unwalled reformatories were built on large parcels of land, usually in rural areas with small cottages instead of cellblock structures. Rafter (1985) offers evidence that minority women were more likely to be sent to the more brutal custodial prison, whereas white women, particularly young, white women who had committed minor offenses, were more likely to be seen as ideal candidates for redemption in the reformatory. Alderson Federal Prison in West Virginia and the California Institute for Women represent the reformatory model and were still in use at the end of the 1990s.

Ending in the 1930s, the reformatory movement established separate women's facilities with some recognition of the gendered needs of women. After the 1930s, the custodial and reform models merged, combining elements of their two styles with differing results throughout the United States. The legacy of these movements continues to shape prisons for women. First, with the exception of a relatively few "cocorrections" experiments that housed women and men together with common programming, most prisons in the 1990s were single sex. Second, vocational programming tends to reinforce gender stereotypes, although some innovative programs that offer training in welding, woodworking, and other male-identified trades are found in the contemporary prison. Third, women in prison continue to be subjected to the neglect that characterizes their history from the early houses of correction to the modern prison.

By the 1940s and 1950s, the medical model of corrections emerged as a new philosophy of punishment. Called "correctional institutions," these prisons moved away from the harsh discipline and work orientation of the custodial prison and instead attempted to introduce treatment to a newly defined inmate—rather than convict—population. "Correctional officers" replaced prison guards, and the inmates were introduced to a treatment regime that attempted to diagnose, classify, and treat the inmate prior to release. An indeterminate sentencing system rewarded those who appeared to conform to this treatment by release on parole. There is little evidence that this approach had any more success in rehabilitating women—or men—than other prior forms of punishment.

During this time, the social sciences "discovered" the prison and began investigating the way prisoners adjusted to and lived their lives in prison. While most of these studies of the prison focused on men, some of the classic work on the subcultures of women's prisons was conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s (Owen; Ward and Kassebaum; Giallombardo; and Heffernan).

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