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"One female prisoner is of more trouble than twenty males": women convicts in Illinois prisons, 1835-1896.

On September 11, 1835 the following entry appeared in the Alton Penitentiary Convict Register:

No. 23. Received the body of Sally Jefferson in the penitentiary at Alton. Said convict is 5 feet 4 inches high, black eyes and hair, fair complected [sic], about 24 years old. Her [eft hand and arm considerably seared by a burn when young. Sentenced for Arson to twelve months confinement in the penitentiary, two weeks of said time to solitary confinement. Done at the Peoria County Circuit Court on the 11th day of September, A.D. 1835. Pardoned by the Governor, 23rd October, 1835.(10

Sally Jefferson has the distinction of being the first woman sentenced to prison in Illinois. Fortunately for her she was quickly pardoned and released only six weeks after being admitted, and no other woman was committed to the penitentiary for another five years. As in nearly all other states, during the nineteenth century female prisoners in Illinois were incarcerated alongside men within the state's three male penitentiaries at Alton (1835-1858), Joliet (18591896), and Chester (1878-1889). In the ante-bellum years women constituted only 2.0% of those sentenced to the penitentiary in Illinois, increasing slightly to 2.4% between 1860 and 1900. As their numbers grew, prison officials were increasingly confronted with the contradictory problems of providing for and managing their female charges within the confines of male prisons. It was not until 1896 that the state established a separate women's prison at Joliet, directly across the street from the male penitentiary.

The presence of female convicts is rarely mentioned in the standard histories of the rise of the penitentiary, while the gendered nature of crime, punishment, and social control has only recently begun to be theorized. This article explores the place of female prisoners within the nineteenth-century male custodial penitentiary. It examines the attitudes and responses of Illinois prison officials towards female convicts, explores the conditions of daily life which confronted women, and analyzes the changing composition of the female prison population between 1835 and 1896. This study contributes to an emerging feminist historiography on the penitentiary which broadens the interpretative framework of previous scholars in regards to issues of agency, resistance, and social control.(2)

According to the traditional Progressive narrative, the creation of the penitentiary reflected an enlightened and humanitarian alternative to earlier and far more brutal practices of corporal and capital punishment. The only competing narrative was that offered by Marxist-influenced historians, who viewed the penitentiary as central to labor exploitation in the transition to, and maintenance of, capitalist economies.(3) Beginning in the 1960s a new generation of "social control" theorists offered a far more sweeping reinterpretation which emphasized the prison's role in the preservation and maintenance of social order in general. They argued that prison reformers were motivated less by humanitarian concerns than by a desire to impose order, discipline, and social control on those they perceived as the disorderly and "dangerous classes." As Michael Ignatieff, one of the leading revisionists, explained, these narratives incorporated the history of the prison "into a history of the philosophy of authority and the exercise of class power in general. The prison was thus studied not for itself but for what its rituals of humiliation could reveal about a society's ruling conceptions of power, social obligation, and human malleability."(4)

Michel Foucault, undoubtedly the most influential and provocative of these theorists, argued in his magisterial Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Penitentiary that the penitentiary symbolized modernity itself, representing the creation of a "carceral society" that employed radically new and expanded technologies of power, knowledge, discipline, and control. Foucault argued that one should study the prison and asylum not in and of themselves, but as "sites for the analysis of power relationships in wider society, in the reproduction of social order 'beyond the walls.'"(5) Foucault's analysis, however, is limited to the prison as metaphor, not the reality of the nineteenth-century penitentiary, which never achieved its founders' dreams of total surveillance, control, or domination. Nor was Foucault's metaphor of the "docile body" ever a reality. Prisoners' resistance to penal discipline was central to the history and evolution of the prison.

None of these three major schools of interpretation paid any attention to gender. Prisoners, the objects of punishment and penal control, were implicitly male. Foucault, for example, never analyzed these new "disciplinary technologies" in gendered terms nor took into account the particularities of specific subjects or "bodies." As feminist philosopher Sandra Bartky has noted in her provocative critique, "Foucault treats the body throughout as if it were one, as if the bodily experiences of men and women did not differ and as if men and women bore the same relationship to the characteristic institutions of modern life."(6)

The woman who violated the law transgressed not only legal norms, but the boundaries of femininity itself. English historian Lucia Zedner notes that criminal women, whether their crimes involved sexual or legal transgressions, were widely represented as the "very negation of the feminine ideal."(7) Because women were viewed as being more pure and moral by nature than men, the woman who dared to stray or fell from her elevated pedestal was regarded as having fallen a greater distance than a male, and hence as being beyond any possibility of reformation. Illinois penitentiary commissioners reflected this popular attitude when they wrote that women prisoners were generally regarded as the "most degraded of their sex, if not of humanity."(8)

Society's highly restricted definition of proper womanhood shaped and limited penal responses to women's law-breaking. For most of the nineteenth century, female prisoners remained social outcasts and pariahs, incarcerated alongside of males in separate annexes, wings, or units either within or attached to their state's male penitentiaries. The descriptions of the women's quarters contained in most states' annual reports described wretched conditions, overcrowding, lack of supervision, neglect, enforced idleness, and occasional hints of sexual exploitation or abuse. An Auburn (New York) prison chaplain writing in 1830 best summarized the situation faced by women prisoners in this early period: "To be a male convict in this prison would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death."(9) Prison officials rarely acknowledged the needs of women convicts and instead complained bitterly and repeatedly over the great difficulties they experienced in managing and disciplining their female charges. Female prisoners were typically blamed for any and all disruptions that their presence created within the masculine world of the penitentiary. Moreover, in the eyes of most prison administrators, nineteenth-century female convicts were considered even more difficult to manage than their male peers and even more disruptive of penal discipline.

The condition and treatment of female convicts in Illinois typified national trends.(10) Between 1831 and 1859, only fifty-nine women, in contrast to over three thousand men, were sentenced to prison. Although Illinois was not one of the nation's leading states in terms of penal evolution, it may have been more representative than the far more well-documented histories of the first penitentiaries in Pennsylvania, New York, or Massachusetts. No sustained ideological debates accompanied the transition from corporal to carceral modes of punishment in Illinois; nor were there any extended philosophical debates over the merits of various rehabilitative regimes or competing visions of penal reform. Instead, financial concerns rather than rehabilitative philosophies drove the state's prison policy, and no exception was made in regards to the treatment of the female convicts.(11)

In the early legislative debates over the penitentiary no references were made to the inclusion of women, or to provisions for their care. Illinois' first penitentiary was begun at Alton in 1830, located on the banks of the Mississippi north of St. Louis. The original plan called for only twenty-four single cells, which immediately proved to be inadequate. Over the years new floors and later whole new cellhouse units were built within a crowded two-acre compound. At its height in 1858 the penitentiary contained 256 cells housing over six hundred men and a dozen women. For most of the years between 1839 and 1861 Alton Penitentiary and its entire convict body was leased to one Samuel S. Buckmaster, who also served as warden. From 1863 to 1867 Buckmaster would also serve as lessee and warden at Joliet. For an annual sum, the lessee was responsible for providing for the physical, medical, and spiritual needs of the convict population in return for any and all profits that he could realize from the use or contracting out of their labor. Under this system it was in his financial interest to expend only the minimum required for bare human maintenance on their food, clothing, and medical treatment. In his nearly thirty years of service at the penitentiary, Buckmaster never once called the General Assembly's attention to either the existence or special needs of the female convicts under his care. After 1867 the state took over management of the penitentiaries, leasing out the prisoner's labor to private contractors. However, in both systems profit was the overriding motive, and the quality of the care and treatment received by prisoners, both male and female, suffered accordingly.

Like most ante-bellum prisons, conditions at Alton would be wretched throughout its existence. In a sixteen-page "Memorial" to the Illinois General Assembly in 1847, national prison reformer Dorothea Dix condemned every aspect of the penitentiary, concluding that there were "but two prisons in the United States which are so badly supplied, and so comfortless and disorderly, as this."(12) She advised that the entire penitentiary be abandoned at once and the state begin anew, as the current institution was beyond any hope of repair. She noted that the ground upon which the prison was built was so uneven that the walls were constantly falling down, while rain left rivers of mud flowing throughout the basements of the buildings. There was no prison yard per se and no hospital, chapel, library, or dining hall, standard features of most penitentiaries by this time. No chaplain was employed and no provision was made for either the "moral instruction" or education of the convicts; not even Bibles were available. Indeed, very few states provided the funds for their penitentiaries to hire even part-time chaplains. Occasionally, dedicated religious personnel from the local area volunteered their services. In some prisons a chaplain might provide lessons in reading or writing for the illiterate prisoner, but this was infrequent or sporadic at best. This lack of commitment to financing even the most rudimentary religious or educational programs throws into question the entire reform agenda of the early penitentiaries. Historian W. David Lewis has persuasively argued that by the 1830s public disillusionment with the first generation of prisons had lead to a hardening of attitudes toward the criminal, and belief in the possibility of their reformation was waning.(13) At Alton, such a faith had never even been expressed.

This was the environment which greeted women prisoners. The entrance of the first two female convicts was never publicly noted in any of the annual reports from the prison Only the convict registers disclose their existence. After Sally Jefferson's quick pardon in 1835, the next woman was not received until 1840. Only nineteen years old at the time, of "fair complexion, hazel eyes, and brown hair," Mary Wiser (Convict No. 198) had been sentenced for the highly atypical crime of "poisoning with intent to kill." Like a majority of female convicts, Wiser was a recent migrant to the state. She had been born in New Jersey, journeying to western Illinois two years earlier with her new husband and young child. According to the prison clerk, during her residence in Illinois she "never was a member of any church or temperance society," factors which may have prejudiced a judge or jury against her case.(14) Cut off from any family, kin, or community networks that might have supported her, Wiser continued to insist that she was not guilty upon her arrival at Alton. Despite these protestations of innocence, she failed to secure a pardon and was forced to serve her full one-year sentence. The lack of sympathy expressed towards Wiser was most likely due to the nature of her offense. Poisoning was regarded as a particularly horrific "women's crime" which evoked outrage and dread among contemporaries as it subverted women's traditional role as homemaker and nurturer. Indeed, the only woman ever to be executed in Illinois was hung in 1845 for allegedly "feeding her husband 'white arsenic.'"(15)

Mary Wiser's isolation as the only woman prisoner would have been extreme. In 1842 the presence of women at the penitentiary was publicly noted for the first time. On the final page of their biennial report, the Committee on the Penitentiary noted in passing that, "There is [sic] likewise two female convicts that have to be kept in the cook house in the day time and in a cellar at night."(16) Several years later Dix would characterize this cellar as a "wretched den, uncleansed, unventilated, and utterly comfortless."(17) However, because it was located directly underneath the "Warden's House," the women may have been provided with some small degree of safety and security, although they were employed next to the male convicts during the day. In 1843, without offering any explanation, the warden decided to transfer the women directly into the male cellhouse. For the next ten years the one or two female prisoners unfortunate enough to be incarcerated at any given time were forced to share cells adjacent to those of over one hundred men.

The penitentiary inspectors were deeply disturbed by the warden's solution of housing females alongside men. In 1844 they declared that "if females are to be sent to the penitentiary" then some provision had to be made for a "female department." In their eyes, "The impropriety of confining them in adjoining cells and working them in the same shops with the male convicts, is too evident to be dwelt upon."(18) The following year the penitentiary inspectors repeated their demand for a separate female department, going so far as to suggest that the legislature "should relieve the warden, by law, of receiving any women prisoners until after some suitable provision has been made for them."(19) This recommendation may have been temporarily carried out. In 1846 Dix reported that "there are [at present] no women convicts in the prison at Alton, not probably because there are none whose offenses subject them to being sent there, but because there is not the smallest provision for their reception."(20) That same year a Minority Report of the Penitentiary Committee condemned the intermingling of the sexes in even stronger terms and demanded an immediate appropriation of two thousand dollars for the construction of an entirely separate "female department" that "shall be of sufficient dimensions for sixteen convicts."(21)

Despite Dix's protest and the penitentiary inspectors' repeated denunciations, no separate female department was approved by the state legislature during the 1840s. While the penitentiary inspectors expressed shock over the lack of "propriety" that resulted from the intermingling of the sexes within the prison's walls, their calls went unheeded by a General Assembly committed solely to turning the penitentiary into a profitable business venture and expending as few additional funds as possible on its upkeep. Nor was either the state or the lessee willing to shoulder even the far smaller financial burden of hiring a female matron.

The perceived low character and unreformability of convict women was a major factor behind this neglect. The great majority of women imprisoned in Illinois during the nineteenth century led lives that lay at the boundaries of social and economic marginality. Over half were foreign-born immigrant women, primarily Irish, although after 1890 African-American women would replace immigrant women as the majority of female prison commitments. A significant number appear to have been domestic servants convicted of larceny for stealing money, jewelry, clothing, or other household items from their employers; others were characterized as notorious "sneak thieves" or professional shoplifters; while a much smaller percentage were prostitutes who had robbed from their clients. Most had only recently entered the state and had few social or familial ties to protect them in their confrontations with the law. Although they tended to be older women (average age of thirty), in the 1850s less than half were married, and only one-third reported having children. Of those who were married six had husbands who were also in prison, which may have been a significant factor influencing judges' decisions to sentence them. Already marked as beyond the bounds of respectable femininity, the state expressed little concern for their reformation or their care.(22)

The tiny number of female convicts further added to their obscurity. It was not until the 1850s that women became a permanent presence in the penitentiary for the first time, with an average of six women present in a daily population that doubled from three to six hundred men. With the increase in the female population, prison officials were forced to find a more secure and permanent place for them. In 1852 their repeated calls for separate female quarters was finally heard: a two-story hospital building was converted into a separate "female department" containing six cells on the second floor and a series of workrooms on the first. The inspectors claimed that the construction was "of a character which makes this part of the penitentiary all that can at present be desired."(23) In 1857 a new chaplain indicated the first and only official interest in the moral reformation of the female convicts, reporting that he conducted two services every Sunday, one for the women and one for the men.(24)

The inspectors' concerns that the women be completely isolated and "kept entirely separate from the men" was not motivated simply by humanitarian concern over "propriety" or the wretched conditions of their incarceration. Instead, it was the "pernicious" influence of the female convicts on the good order and discipline of the men which most concerned them. In 1845 they wrote that:

(W)hen it is known that while convicts of both sexes are confined in the same yard, it is impossible for them to be restrained within the bounds of propriety, or their morals reformed; and from past experience, not only in our own State, but in others, one female prisoner is of more trouble than twenty males.(25)

This theme - that female convicts were more trouble than male - would be repeated continuously over the next thirty years. In all official reports it was the women who were singled out and condemned as the agents of disruption, rather than pitied as the helpless victims of male abuse. Nineteenth-century female prisoners in Illinois, like many of their imprisoned sisters nationally, were rarely regarded as the dutiful subjects of prison regimes. They were blamed both for being harder to manage and for creating greater difficulties in the management of the male convict population.(26) That same year the minority report of the inspectors was even more explicit. They reported:

As it is now, this [complete separation of the sexes] cannot be done either by day or night. When out of their cells, in the day time ... they cannot be prevented from intermingling more or less; and at night, being necessarily confined in adjoining cells, they can converse together without restraint - a state of things that needs only to be stated to show that it should not be permitted to exist any longer.(27)

Throughout the nineteenth century women's forms of resistance to penal authority proved particularly troubling to their male captors, who continually found themselves frustrated in their efforts to effectively manage, control, and discipline their female charges. In assessing the historical record, the following questions need to be posed: Were female convicts, in fact, more undisciplined and more difficult to manage than their male peers? If so, in what ways were they more difficult? What forms did their resistance to prison authority take, and why did their male captors find them so hard to handle? There is no evidence that women were perceived to represent a greater physical threat to prison authorities: they were far less likely to escape, and there are no records of any punishments for striking an officer or another inmate, common practices among male prisoners. Few of the official reports detailed the specific behaviors in which the women engaged or described the precise ways in which the "bounds of propriety" were stretched or broken by the women's presence in the penitentiary. The penitentiary inspectors asserted only that the impropriety was "too evident to be dwelt upon."

One can surmise that the women's presence significantly disrupted prison routines in a number of ways. At the most basic level, this handful of women required additional supervision. As the above complaints indicate, even verbal exchanges between the sexes were regarded as highly disruptive. In her provocative study of convict women in Australia, Joy Damousi argues that "women challenged the boundaries that circumscribed their behavior in different ways to men. Their disturbance was perceived in sexual terms and understood in relation to middle-class expectations of feminine behavior, such as passivity, docility, and subservience."(28) Thus, while "sexual immodesty, foul language, and drunkenness were accepted as normal male convict behavior," these same behaviors were viewed as far more disturbing and disruptive when engaged in by female convicts.(29) Female prisoner's purported vulgarity, loudness, boisterous behavior, lewdness, laughter, taunting, jesting, play, insubordination, sexual assertiveness, homosexuality, and the rejection of decorum and feminine standards of modesty, hygiene, and dress confounded and unsettled both male and female prison officials in ways that were not available to male prisoners.

For other prison officials it was women's demands to be treated as "individuals," thereby defying and undermining their status as "prisoners," which was another major source of their disruptive influence. One British prison matron reported in 1862 that:

It is a harder task to manage female prisoners than male.... They are more impulsive, more individual, more unreasonable and excitable than men; will not act in concert, and cannot be disciplined in masses. Each wants personal and peculiar treatment, so that the duties fall much more heavily on the matrons than on the wardens; matrons having ... to adapt themselves to each individual case, instead of simply obeying certain fixed laws and making others obey them, as in the prison for males.(30)

This theme - that female prisoners demanded individualized care and attention - would be echoed by prison observers down though the present day. This matron admitted that female prisoners were often highly successful in forcing prison staff to bend prison rules, offer concessions, and acknowledge their individual needs. Rules were suspended, and idiosyncratic or acting out behavior was simply overlooked. The matron acknowledged that such a toleration "is to a certain extent subversive of true discipline, but a strict observance of the rules would inevitably kill the woman, whose indomitable spirit would last till her dying day."(31) Although Illinois prison officials never offered such a detailed description, this "indomitable spirit" appears to have been equally present among Illinois female convicts. Indeed, women may have been were well aware of, and exploited, the ways in which their very presence in the penitentiary disrupted penal regimes. Female prisoners may have sought to use their gender as a weapon, perhaps the only defense they had from the degradations and humiliations of prison life.(32)

Male officials may have also felt some constraint in the threats or punishments that they could impose on female convicts. The official discipline reports do not indicate that female convicts were ever flogged, the standard punishment that was liberally applied to male convicts who engaged in anything from verbal insolence and profanity to attempted escape. Indeed, Illinois' 1827 Revised Law Code had explicitly prohibited either the whipping or pillorying of white women, although these corporal punishments were permitted in the disciplining of African-American women.(33) As a result, some imprisoned women may have felt that they could act with greater impunity because they did not face the lash. As we shall see, complaints regarding the purportedly disruptive presence of convict women were repeated by prison officials at Joliet Penitentiary in the 1860s. It was not until the 1870s, after they had been sequestered away to isolated attic quarters where they were supervised by a female matron, that prison officials began to express satisfaction with the discipline and management of their female charges.

Failure to inflict the lash on women deftly exposes the contradictory position of women in the penitentiary: their dual status as both female and convict remained problematic. Women's bodies could not be subjected to the same forms of discipline as men's while women's unique bodily needs imposed additional burdens. This was most evidenced in the case of pregnant women, whose presence generated contradictory and ambivalent responses. In 1855 the penitentiary inspectors raised what they viewed as an increasingly pressing problem: What should be done with pregnant women? They acknowledged that "the laws passed for the government of the prison do not appear to have contemplated such an event, and no provision has been made for such cases."(34) They noted that the prison had neither a lying-in hospital nor a nurse, and the convict and her offspring were described as an "incumbrance [sic] on the warden."(35) However, it was not the health of the mother or child that primarily concerned them but the financial burden they posed. In the same report Buckmaster pointed out that as warden and lessee, he was not only "burdened by the financial responsibilities of caring for the convalescent mother," he also lost the value of the mother's labor which "could not be profitably put to use," and, at the same time, incurred the additional expense of caring for an infant.(36) In one 1850s pardon request Warden Buckmaster wrote to the governor: "You are aware that our accommodations for females are very poor, even when they are in a situation to care for themselves, and I hope you will not consider that it is from a desire to get clear of all female prisoners as," he added, "we are still left with two, both of whom are hard cases."(37)

That same year a legislative investigating committee offered a slightly more humanitarian objection, warning that the "innocent offspring of guilty parents should not be branded with the disgrace of birth within the penitentiary walls."(38) The committee, however, was divided, believing that "the evil would only be increased" by adopting any official policy of granting pardons to pregnant women. They feared that convicted women would "not hesitate to commit one crime to escape the penalty attached to the commission of another" by becoming pregnant for the sole purpose of escaping their prison sentence.(39) This fear was voiced repeatedly and haunted the commissioners in their efforts to resolve the problem.

The dilemma posed by pregnant female convicts remained intractable, and no clearly articulated official policy was developed. In 1857 another Joint Select Committee bluntly recommended that "propriety" demanded that all pregnant female convicts be immediately released from the penitentiary "as soon as it may be satisfactorily ascertained that such is their condition."(40) However the following year a new warden vocally disagreed and proposed instead that a nursery be established within the prison itself, a novel idea for the time. He clearly hoped for a solution that would avoid the wholesale pardoning of all pregnant female convicts and, perhaps too, avoid the loss of their valued labor. Nonetheless, he fully admitted that "as at present situated, it is impossible for the officers of the prison to provide the care and treatment such cases demand."(41) Despite the objections of this one warden and the ambivalence expressed by the penitentiary inspectors, it appears that a de facto policy evolved in which most pregnant women prisoners were, in fact, summarily pardoned and released.

The official reports all explicitly state that these female convicts entered the penitentiary pregnant, and some women may have, in fact, employed pregnancy as a deliberate strategy to subvert their prison sentence. In one 1862 pardon request a warden described the forlorn case of a woman who entered the penitentiary "badly pregnant" and "prepared with needful small clothes ... for that important occasion."(42) However, the question of whether some of these pregnancies resulted from sexual relationships within the prison must be raised. It is somewhat surprising that judges were willing to sentence such a large percentage of pregnant women to prison. Given the total lack of female supervision, along with their greatly outnumbered status, the possibilities of both coerced and consensual sexual relationships were numerous. It is also possible that some women became pregnant during the time they spent in jail waiting trial. In her study of the ante-bellum period, historian Estelle B. Freedman found that "illegitimate births" by female prisoners were noted in nearly every prison or jail report, although it is not always clear from the sources whether the women became pregnant before or after they entered prison.(43) Unfortunately, the actual situation in Illinois remains obscure. After 1860 prison officials completely ceased to refer to the presence of pregnant women in their biennial reports, suggesting that pregnant women were being routinely pardoned and released. A survey of the physicians' annual reports revealed only one childbirth listed in 1888, although nothing more was said concerning the fate of either the mother or her child. One photograph of the women's quarters from the early 1890s portrays a four-year old boy sitting solemnly in the foreground with female convicts sewing silently behind him. Although the photographer claimed that the child had been born in the penitentiary and raised there by his mother, this may have been a rare exception to a de facto practice of summarily pardoning and releasing pregnant women.(44)

Pregnant women were not the only prisoners whose sentences were routinely commuted. At Alton in the 1850s nearly one-half of the women (47 %), and one-quarter of the men (23%), were officially pardoned by the governor and served less than their full sentence. It is likely that the relative shortness of women's sentences contributed greatly to their ability to endure the deprivations of incarceration and its attendant humiliations and abuses. Although in the 1850s the average sentence given by the courts to women was 1.6 years (2.5 for men), the average time that female prisoners actually served was less than a year (11.3 months) due to the frequency of pardons. Such short sentences shaped the ways in which women responded to prison life. Bronwyn Dalley has suggested that in many women's prisons "the rapid turn-over of a small number of short-term prisoners meant that an organized group response was unlikely."(45) Moreover, the possibility of earning a pardon further constrained women's behaviors within the prison, especially for those with longer sentences and more serious charges, who were the most likely to petition for an early release. These women may have had far more to lose by open defiance and resistance. Pardon requests represented a legitimate means through which they could both challenge their confinement and contest their status as criminalized women. While highly individualized, it is likely that women shared their collective knowledge and understandings of the legal system, as well as basic literacy skills, in crafting their petitions.

Successful pardon petitions often involved a redefinition of a woman's moral character, indicating that women were well-aware of, and sought to turn to their advantage, the power of gender stereotypes. Many pardon petitions included letters of support from the same attorneys and judges who had convicted them, as well as from community members who had previously failed to rally in their support. In one revealing pardon request, a Chicago judge wrote to the governor that he had misjudged the woman's case. He explained that he had originally given her the maximum six-year sentence for larceny because he believed that she was a professional thief. However, he was now convinced that she was a woman of upstanding moral character who had stolen only out of desperation and the need to support her children. In this case the prisoner had successfully forced a redefinition of her character and the nature of her criminality. Instead of being construed as a "professional thief," she now evoked sympathy as a "desperate mother." The governor granted her a pardon.(46)

These pardons reveal the ambivalence that judges and prosecuting attorneys held over sentencing women at mid-century. According to a doctoral study by Nancy J. Harm, the reasons for which women sought pardons could be categorized as: "mitigating circumstances of the crime" (32%); pregnancy (19%); illness (17%); "needed at home" (16%); good conduct in prison (10%); "weak-minded" or "insane" (3%); and age (3%).(47) These pardon files provide another glimpse into how the nineteenth-century legal system handled female criminality. Women, who had been unsuccessful during their trial and conviction stages, were now able to marshal their resources, present new evidence, and successfully convince previously unpersuaded officials as to the "mitigating circumstances" of their cases. For example, in one case from 1866, twenty-three-year-old mulatto Jennie Rose had been convicted of manslaughter in the shooting death of her husband. Despite her mixed race heritage, her case garnered sympathy. In a petition from local townspeople her husband was characterized as a "brutal desperado ... universally regarded as a dangerous man, capable of almost every crime." She was pardoned after serving three and one-half years of her twenty-year sentence.(48)

In most cases, however, race overrode appeals to leniency. Between 1860 and 1890 African-American women served slightly longer sentences than white women for every category of crime and were less likely to be pardoned. One young African-American woman who sought a pardon shortly after the Civil War had "confessed to stealing a shawl because the (police) officer told her that she would not be punished if she confessed," a promise that was not honored. In her pardon petition the judge himself admitted that he doubted her guilt, the prosecuting state's attorney acknowledged that the jury was "strongly prejudiced against Negroes," and a former employer described her as "an honest girl and a good servant." Despite these three unanimous recommendations, and the slight value of the shawl which she had been accused of stealing, the pardon was denied.(49)

After 1860, the percentage of women (and men) who received a pardon and early release declined dramatically. For women the percentage was halved from 46% in the 1850s to 23% in the 1860s, falling to 15% in the 1870s, before stabilizing at a mere 5% through 1910. This decline reflected the development of a standardized system of "good time" credits and formal parole procedures that were applied equally to men and women. However, the decline in pardons may also have reflected a relative hardening of attitudes towards female offenders. Although the average time women served remained relatively low, reaching a high of only 2.2 years in the 1890s, a small group of women were now required to serve significantly longer sentences. Whereas in the 1850s the longest sentence actually served was barely three years, this doubled to seven years in the 1860s and sixteen years the following decade. Thus, a few women, all convicted of murder, now found it impossible to secure an early pardon or release based on gender privileges. Even declining health, sickness, or advanced age were no longer as likely to spare a woman from the full force of her prison sentence. Whereas in the ante-bellum period no women had died in prison, after the Civil War three to five women passed away every decade, hinting that there was less sympathy to release even sick women early.

Although in the 1850s concerns were expressed about some of the conditions facing female prisoners, female convicts continued to represent barely a footnote in the official biennial reports. From the point of view of the wardens, inspectors, and penitentiary commissioners, far more urgent and pressing problems needed to be resolved. The male prison population had tripled over the 1850s and overcrowding was at its peak. Despite the assertions of the penitentiary commissioners, who in 1855 described the prisoners, "both male and female," as "comfortably clothed and abundantly fed on good, well-prepared and wholesome food" and in "excellent health," conditions had deteriorated badly.(50) In 1857 an official legislative investigating committee concluded that there was ample evidence to support reformers' charges of fiscal corruption, gross negligence, unconscionably high death rates, and excessive use of corporal punishment. They concluded that the penitentiary was beyond repair and should be entirely relocated. In 1857 the General Assembly agreed and that same year the town of Joliet, located forty-five miles southwest of Chicago, was selected as the site for the state's new penitentiary.

Joliet Penitentiary would come to be known as one of the most famous or infamous prisons in the United States. In 1866 it was reputed to be the second largest penitentiary in the U.S. with an average daily population of nearly 1,100 inmates. Between 1860 and 1896, when a separate women's unit was finally built, approximately twenty-five thousand men and seven hundred women would pass through its gates. As at Alton, conditions at Joliet were chaotic during the first two decades and corruption, mismanagement, and physical abuse of prisoners flourished. Legislative investigations took place in 1867, 1872, and 1878, although none had even a word to say about the treatment of female convicts.

A one-hundred cell internal "female prison" was an integral part of Joliet's original design. This "prison within a prison" was located within the main prison yard and surrounded by a wall of its own. Nothing in its architectural design distinguished the female unit from the male cellhouses. The women's prison was a two-story structure with fifty cells on each floor in a traditional cell-block design. It was adjoined by another large two-story building referred to as the "female workshop."(51) The women's unit was completed in early 1859. However, because the much larger four and five-hundred cell male cellhouses were not yet constructed, the designated female prison was used to house male convicts rather than female for the next five years. Meanwhile, the female convicts were relegated to the most make-shift of quarters. In 1862 the commissioners reported in passing that the dozen female convicts "owing to the crowded state ... were necessarily confined in one small room, which was made to serve the three-fold purpose of working, eating, and sleeping, rendering it alike inconvenient and unhealthy."(52)

It is extraordinary that a one-hundred-cell female prison was designed, when no more than ten women had ever been incarcerated at any one time in the six female cells at Alton. The substantial size of the female unit at Joliet may have been determined not by past experience in Illinois, but by the lessons gleaned from other states. Illinois' architects and penitentiary inspectors toured several eastern penitentiaries before designing Joliet. A common complaint of these eastern officials may well have been the insufficient space and accommodations provided for their female prisoners, as well as their inability to completely segregate the women from the male population. Joliet's architects sought to avoid these mistakes. The female prison at Joliet was designed to be of a large and substantial size; it was centrally located and adjacent to the chapel, hospital and dining hall, providing the women with direct yet private access to these facilities. Moreover, the women were completely cut off from interaction with the male population by a surrounding wall, which also served to provide them with their own private recreation yard. From the point of view of prison officials, the result was a building which appeared well-suited to the complete isolation and segregation of female prisoners, although experience would quickly prove otherwise.

The first official reference to the presence of female convicts occurred in 1861: a list of prison rules declared that "no guard will be allowed to speak to or converse with any convict woman" and threatened that "any one so offending will be discharged."(53) This prohibition may have been formulated in response to some particularly flagrant abuses or else perhaps because a new interim warden took a greater interest in the protection of his female charges. However, this regulation was not repeated in any subsequent rulings, nor were any other explicit guidelines ever developed for the governance of the female prisoners. During these early years the female prisoners at Joliet may have been supervised by the warden's wife, a common practice in other penitentiaries at the time. In 1864, the female convicts, now numbering approximately two dozen, were finally allowed to occupy their own quarters in the new female prison, where they would remain until 1869. In addition to these architectural improvements, a female matron was finally employed. The 1867 Penitentiary Act explicitly legislated that the warden be granted the responsibility of appointing a matron, and further authorized that he should appoint "such assistant matrons as shall be necessary, not exceeding one for each twenty-five female convicts in said penitentiary."(54) The 1868 biennial report named one Miss Sadie Brown in a listing of all prison employees. Unfortunately, although she was employed for five years, neither the warden nor penitentiary inspectors ever referred to Matron Brown, and she remains as obscure as the female convicts themselves.(55)

In 1867, under pressure from reformers and a series of scandals at Joliet, the state abolished the lease system, appointed a new warden, and took over the management of the penitentiary. The following year the new warden gave the first of many recommendations for the construction of a female unit which, he now argued, needed to be located completely outside of the male prison enclosure. The Warden complained that the female department "unnecessarily takes up much room ... and requires much extra care and attention for its proper management." Echoing earlier complaints from Alton, he explained that "the present female department ... is a great annoyance to the management, and ... its removal would be conducive to the general discipline of the institution." He repeated that "this would be a great help to the officers in the successful government of the convicts and in establishing a more thorough discipline."(56) Moreover, despite a three-fold increase in the total number of women committed to prison during the 1860s, the daily population of female convicts averaged only thirty, far fewer than the one-hundred-cell space provided for them. In contrast, overcrowding in the men's cellhouses had reached crisis levels.

That same year the chaplain voiced an even stronger opinion on the necessity of removing the women:

Situated directly in the midst of the prison premises, are the apartments assigned to the female convicts. Experience has convinced all who have been intimately connected with the prison, that no degree of vigilance secures the great mass of prisoners from the pernicious influence of these females. It is the bane, in fact, of morality among our men.(57)

The prison physician also heartily concurred and was even more explicit regarding the nature of the disruptive influence created by the female convicts. He proclaimed it his duty to call the attention of prison authorities to the "prevailing habit of self-abuse [masturbation] among the convicts." He judged this habit to be widespread and the direct cause of "five-sixths of the disease I have had under treatment" as well as the cause of the inmate's purportedly low productivity at work. In his view the female convicts were directly responsible for this sad state of affairs. He explained that:

Convicts are a class of men whose principles and tastes have been more or less debauched from the course of life they have hitherto lead.... (A)dd to this the presence within the prison walls of a large number of depraved females, who, by secret contrivances, are in constant communication with the male convicts, and you will be at no loss to understand the temptations to this vice are irresistible to natures already fearfully depraved. At any cost the female prison should be removed from the premises (emphasis in original).(58)

As in earlier complaints, it was the female convicts who were singled out as the agents of depravity: it is they who are accused of being in "constant communication" with the men, rather than the men being held responsible for "secret contrivances" of their own. The following year the two dozen women then incarcerated were in fact moved. In 1870 the chaplain reported that "the removal of the female convicts from their old quarters [inside the prison compound] to the fourth story of the Warden's House, thus cutting off every avenue of communication with male prisoners, has been of vast importance to the prison." He added that "to remove them entirely away from here, would prove of still greater importance."(59)

Pat O'Brien argues that, "Historians must begin to write the history of prisons from the inside out ... Prisoners were not an inert collectivity on whom the new disciplinary regime effected its changes."(60) In order to understand the prison community "it is essential to know who lived in it."(61) Before concluding, we need to explore more fully the changing composition of the female prisoner population, as these changes affected the dynamics of prison life. The particular difficulties voiced by prison officials in the management of the female convicts in the 1860s may have been due to several reasons: their overall difficulty in establishing control and developing an efficient discipline at the new institution, the increasing numbers of female convicts coupled with a decrease in the number of pardons, and the entry of a large number of young, recently-freed, African-American women. The following graph reveals that the most dramatic increases in female imprisonment occurred in the 1860s and again in the second half of the 1890s. Both of these periods coincided with the projected opening of new women's units at Joliet. Judges may have been more willing to sentence women if they believed that adequate quarters now existed for them. The dramatic fall in female commitments after 1870 and again after 1900 may be attributed, in part, to disillusionment with these new facilities. However, it must also be noted that the rapid increase in female prison commitments during the first (although not the second} half of the 1860s reflected national trends, while the increase in the late 1890s appears unique to Illinois.(62)

In addition to an increase in absolute numbers, significant changes occurred in the ethnic and racial composition of the female prison population between 1850 and 1900, reflecting changing attitudes towards female criminality. In the 1850s three-quarters (75%) of female convicts were foreign-born and of the total over half (55%) were Irish immigrants. These numbers declined slightly in the 1860s to 63% foreign-born and 47% Irish. However, after 1870 the Irish percentage fell sharply, finally stabilizing at a mere 2% after 1890. This decline most likely reflected the unprecedented rise of the Irish in Chicago's social and political life. Although they continued to face some nativist prejudices, as early as the 1850s one-third of Chicago police officers were Irish, and they held one-quarter of all public and political jobs, including those of judges.(63)

As the percentage of Irish and foreign-born declined, African-American women came to take their place. In sharp contrast, whereas African-American women were only 2% of female prison commitments in the late 1850s, they were 25% of all commitments in the five years after the Civil War, even though the African-American percentage of the state's population had only increased from 1.0 to 1.1%.(64) The evidence suggests that most of these incarcerated black women were former slaves who had just recently entered the state: three-quarters (76%) listed their nativity as one of the former slave states, the majority were sentenced only after the end of the war, when African-Americans were first legally allowed entry into Illinois, and two-thirds were sentenced from Alexander county, Illinois' southernmost county and port of entry into the state. These black women were the youngest cohort of women ever to be incarcerated: 42% were teenagers, in contrast to 16% of white women. Moreover, half were sentenced with two or three others, both male and female, hinting that groups of young African-American migrants came under increased surveillance and suspicion. This large group of young, recently-freed, African-American women, most of whom were sentenced for relatively minor crimes, may have deeply resented their incarceration and may have imported into the prison forms of resistance that they had developed under slavery. Moreover, the support of friends may have emboldened them in their defiance of prison authorities, while the males with whom they were accused of being in "constant communication" may have been husbands, lovers, fathers, or brothers.

Between 1870 and 1890 the African-American percentage of female prison commitments declined slightly, holding steady at 18% before jumping to 42% in the 1890s.(65) As in the 1860s, this second sharp rise in female prison commitments was due to a dramatic increase in the number of imprisoned African-American women. In contrast to the 1860s, however, it was Chicago, rather than southern Illinois, that now sentenced by far the greatest numbers (66%) of black women to the penitentiary. Moreover, because African-American prisoners were forced to serve longer sentences than white women for most offenses, while they were often sentenced for more serious crimes which automatically carried longer sentences, their numbers tended to "pile up" over time. By the 1890s African. American women represented two-thirds of the daily prison population. Although prison officials never once commented publicly on the increasing presence of African-American women, their numbers may have informed and fueled their negative attitudes towards female convicts.

Between 1870 and 1896 the women prisoners at Joliet remained locked away on the fourth floor of the "Warden's House," or outer administration building, until a separate Joliet Women's Prison was constructed directly across the street from the male penitentiary. During this quarter-century they were completely sequestered; one report suggests a high level of vigilance in preventing all interaction with male prisoners or prison staff. Occasionally a sympathetic observer protested that their "feet never touched the ground" except for a once a year stroll in the prison yard on the Fourth of July.(66) The women passed their days under a strict regime of silence, performing contract knitting and light manufacturing, in addition to doing all of the mending and sewing for the male convicts and their officers. In a rare description, prison photographer Sidney W. Wetmore reported that:

The women sit facing these [fourth story] windows all day long, their chairs are in an even row, and they have great piles of stockings in their laps. With darning needles and raveled wool they mend and repair heel and toe. It is terribly monotonous work, a dreary routine, a truly penitential task. The women keep their eyes bent on their work, and if the outside scenes remind them of the freedom they have lost, they do not show it in their repressed and stolid faces.(67)

Throughout the 1870s the warden lavishly praised the general management of the female department under the tight control of a new matron. In 1874, he reported, "(I)t is due to that department to say, that under the excellent management of its efficient Matron, Mrs. J. E. Judson, the earnings of each prisoner have averaged as much as those of the male department, and the prison is a model of neatness and order."(68) In 1876 the penitentiary commissioners were equally pleased to report that the women's labor was a"benefit to the prison equal to that derived from the labor of the male convicts." They added that Matron Judson's success in the management of her female charges "is attested by all ... and also by the large amount of labor exacted from and performed by her most unwilling subjects" (emphasis added).(69) Thus, in the 1870s women convicts were still viewed by prison officials as "unwilling subjects" difficult to both discipline and control when not under the supervision of a highly skilled and efficient matron. The commissioners concluded with their observation that: "Female convicts in a penitentiary are universally regarded as the most degraded of their sex, if not of humanity. To control and discipline them is no easy task, and requires constant care and attention." Nonetheless, they were quick to assure their readers that "as in other departments of the prison, the same humane treatment has been observed here, and these women have been controlled and governed by kindly influences and firm, unyielding moral forces, with very little punishment."(70) Thus, with the hiring of Matron Judson in the 1870s, the problem of managing female convicts was finally resolved to the satisfaction of male prison authorities, who summarily proceeded to forget their very existence. After 1880 the women prisoners completely disappeared from the historical record.

From these limited references it is clear that the measure of success applied to the female department considered only the amount of profit that could be extracted from the women's labor, the cleanliness of their quarters, and the effectiveness of the discipline maintained by the matron. Indeed, the labor system itself may have been a key to the discipline that had been achieved. Moreover, despite the beginnings of a new national discourse on female criminality at the end of the century, there is no sign of any rehabilitative or reformatory ideology at Joliet, nor are there any hints that the warden or penitentiary commissioners were even aware of or interested in the first experiment in an autonomous women's prison then unfolding in the neighboring state of Indiana.

Indeed, when Illinois' third penitentiary was constructed at Chester in 1878, the experience of women at Joliet was simply repeated. As at Joliet, the original architectural plans called for a similar "female department," which was to be located directly inside the male prison yard and "surrounded by a high stone wall and containing all the requirements connected with that department."(71) This female prison, however, was never constructed, and that same year the commissioners reported that as four female prisoners had already been received, temporary quarters had to be found. Like the two women sentenced to Alton in 1842 who were kept "in a cookhouse by day and a cellar by night," the first two women at Chester were similarly housed in a cellar under one of the workhouses for the first several years. Despite these inadequate conditions, the commissioners were pleased to report that the women were productively employed "in making up clothing for the convicts," noting that "their services are worth from a dollar to a dollar and a half per day." In fact, they concluded "we find them very valuable."(72)

In 1882, however, concerned over the lack of any appropriate accommodations, Chester's penitentiary commissioners recommended the construction of an entirely separate female prison, asserting that "there is neither wisdom, economy, nor humanity in keeping female prisoners cooped up in the attic of one and basement of the other prison for male convicts of the State." They concluded that the "practice of keeping male and female prisoners in the same prison ... is one that the better thought of the day universally condemns." The commissioners recommended that such a female prison should be entirely autonomous and "managed and governed by a board of philanthropic Christian ladies."(73) This proposal, however, went completely unheeded and was never again mentioned. In 1884 the female convicts were removed to the warden's house and a matron hired. She was praised by the warden for her "efficient management," while the profitability of the female convicts was again singled out for special praise. The warden calculated that "with the aid of two knitting-machines" the female convicts had "furnished the men with 4,846 pairs of socks." In addition, they had made "underclothes, coats and pants" for the officers and had "done all the laundry work for the warden's house." "All of which," he concluded, "if computed in dollars and cents would show how valuable this department is to the institution."(74) In the last biennial report of the 1880s, only the productivity and profitability of the female convicts was discussed and the monetary value of the women's labor was again carefully estimated. As at Joliet, the overriding concern of the prison administration centered on the profitability of the female labor. No explicit policies or guidelines were developed for the care and treatment of the female convicts, despite an extensive, eleven-page list of regulations for the males that was so detailed as to prohibit "spitting upon the floor in the Cell House" by both convicts and officers.(75)

In 1887 the Illinois General Assembly passed a resolution directing the commissioners at Chester to arrange for the removal of all female convicts to Joliet "in order to save expense and secure economy in management," but the order was not carried out.(76) Two years later, the General Assembly passed a second act, this time supplying a two thousand dollar appropriation to cover the costs of the transfer.(77) Again, economy and expediency were the only rationales publicly given, and neither the warden nor any other penitentiary officials commented upon the removal of the women from Chester to Joliet in late 1889.

Some historians have emphasized female victimization and vulnerability to physical violence and sexual abuse as the defining characteristics of women's incarceration. While acknowledging the brutality and exploitation which women often faced in many nineteenth-century male penitentiaries, it is equally important to emphasize the ways in which women successfully resisted, subverted, and manipulated penal regimes. Throughout the century female convicts employed a wide range of strategies in their efforts to negotiate their place within the prison. Whether they acted as wanton, lascivious women who flaunted their sexuality, engaged in brazen and unseemly exchanges with male convicts and prison officials, and deliberately manipulated the contradictions which their presence created within the masculine world of the penitentiary, or whether they acquiesced to a more demure standard of proper feminine behavior, thereby seeking protection based on gender privileges, women's forms of resistance to prison authority confounded male officials. Indeed, the very presence of women in the penitentiary posed a challenge to ideological constructions of gender, crime, and punishment while their dual status as female and convict remained highly contradictory and problematic. Although female convicts were acknowledged to provide invaluable labor, prison officials were unanimous in their desire to rid themselves of the excessive burden of their care.

Criminal Justice Program Newark, DE 19802


Author's Note: The research for this project was supported by a dissertation award from the American Association of University Women and a King Hostick Award cosponsored by the Illinois State Historical Society and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

1. First Alton Convict Register (1833-1842), typewritten transcript, Illinois State Historical Library, Joseph Ragen Papers. There were four Alton Convict registers. Unfortunately, only the third and fourth volumes have been preserved, located at the Illinois State Archives. The second volume, covering 1842 to 1847, has been completely lost, while only a typewritten transcript exists of the first.

2. In Partial Justice: Women, Prisons, and Social Control (2nd. ed., New Brunswick, NJ, 1990), Nicole Hahn Rafter developed the first general history of female imprisonment, identifying and tracing the emergence of two distinct types of women's prisons - the custodial (which mirrored male prisons) and the reformatory. Anne M. Butler's outstanding recent work, Gendered Justice in the American West: Women Prisoners in Men's Penitentiaries (Urbana, 1997), provides the only comprehensive study of women committed to men's penitentiaries between 1865 and 1915. In contrast, most of the recent historiography on women's prisons has focused on the predominantly Progressive-era women's reformatory penal institution. The reformatory, however, was not representative of women's experience of imprisonment. Through World War I the majority of female prisoners "did their time" in custodial units either within or attached to their state's male penitentiaries. Estelle B. Freedman's pioneering study, Their Sisters' Keepers: Prison Reform in America, 1830-1930 (Ann Arbor, 1981), focused on the ideology of middle-class female reformers and the separate women's reformatories that they established. Ruth M. Alexander's The "Girl Problem": Female Sexual Delinquency in New York, 1900-1930 (Ithaca, 1995) provides a wonderful account that focuses on the lives of young women incarcerated in New York state's two reformatories. Mary E. Odern's outstanding work, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and PoLicing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (Chapel Hill, 1995), includes a discussion of the development of reformatories for girls and young women.

3. For the classic Progressive account of the history of the penitentiary see Blake McKelvey's American Prisons: A History of Good Intentions (New Jersey, 5th ed., 1977). For seminal Marxist accounts see Georg Rusche and Otto Kirchheimer, Punishment and Social Structure (1939, reprint, New York: Russell and Russell, 1968) and Dario Melossi and M. Pavarini, The Prison and the Factory: Origins of the Penitentiary System (London, 1981).

4. Michael Ignatieff, "State, Civil Society and Total Institutions: A Critique of Recent Social Histories of Punishment, in Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of the Literature, ed. Michael Tonry and Norval Morris (Chicago, 1981), 77. For other reviews of the historiography of the penitentiary, punishment, and social control, see: Anthony M. Platt, "Rethinking and Unthinking 'Social Control,'" in Inequality, Crime and Social Control, eds. George S. Bridges and Martha A. Myers (San Francisco, 1994), 72-79; Stanley Cohen "The Critical Discourse on 'Social Control': Notes on the Concept as a Hammer," International Journal of the Sociology of Law 17 (1989): 347-57; Robert Weiss, "Humanitarianism, Labor Exploitation, or Social Control? A Critical Survey of Theory and Research on the Origin and Development of Prisons," in Social History 12 (October 1987): 331-50; Stanley Cohen and Andrew Scull, "Introduction: Social Control in History and Sociology," in Social Control and the State, ed. Cohen and Scull (New York, 1983), 1-14; David J. Rothman, "Social Control: The Uses and Abuses of the Concept in the History of Incarceration," in Social Control and the State, (op. cit.), 106-117; Alexander W. Pisciotti, "Corrections, Society, and Social Control in America: A Meta-Historical Review of the Literature," Criminal Justice History: An International Annual, Vol. II (1981): 109-30; Michael S. Hindus, "The History of Crime: Not Robbed of Its Potential, But Still on Probation," in Criminal Review Yearbook, Vol. 1, ed. Sheldon L. Messinger and Egon Bittner (Beverly Hills CA, 1980), 217-42; John A. Conley, "Criminal Justice History as a Field of Research: A Review of the Literature, 1960-1975," Journal of Criminal Justice 5 (1977): 13-28; and William A. Muraskin, "The Social-Control Theory in American History: A Critique," Journal of Social History 9 (Summer 1976): 559-49.

5. Adrian Howe, Punish and Critique: Towards a Feminist Analysis of Penality (New York, 1994), 152.

6. Sandra Bartky, "Foucault, Femininity and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power," in Feminist Philosophies: Problems, Theories, and Applications, eds. Janet A. Kourany, James P. Sterban and Rosemarie Tong (New Jersey, 1992), 105.

7. Lucia Zedner, "Wayward Sisters: The Prison for Women," in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, eds. Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (New York, 1995), 320. For perceptive analyses of nineteenth and twentieth century attitudes towards female criminality see Ann-Louise Shapiro, Breaking the Codes: Female Criminality in Fin-de-Siecle Paris (Stanford, CA, 1996); Lucia Zedner, Women, Crime, and Custody in Victorian England (Oxford, 1991); and Russell P. Dobash, R. Emerson Dobash and Sue Gutteridge, The Imprisonment of Women (London, 1986).

8. 1876 Reports to the (Illinois) General Assembly (hereafter abbreviated as RGA), Commissioner's Report, 14.

9. Chaplain B.C. Smith, quoted in W. David Lewis, From Newgate to Dannemora: The Rise of the Penitentiary in New York, 1796-1848 (New York, 1965), 164.

10. It should be noted that significant national differences existed in female imprisonment rates. Foreign observers such as Gustave de Beaumont, Alexis de Tocqueville, and William Crawford were surprised at the low numbers of women they found in American penitentiaries. In contrast, in the first half of the nineteenth century women were twenty percent of the prison population in England and Wales, thirty percent in Scotland, and ranged from fourteen to twenty percent in France (see Dobash, Dobash, and Gutteridge, 86.) Women also represented one-quarter to one-third of all prisoners transported from Britain to Australia and New Zealand.

11. For the origins of the penitentiary in Illinois see Michael Lee Siegfried, "Crime and the Institutionalization of the Penitentiary in Illinois 1818-1841: A Study in Penal Change" (Ph.D. diss., Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1992) and Wiley B. Sanders, "The History and Administration of the State Prisons of Illinois" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1929).

12. 1847 Dorothea L. Dix, "Memorial in Relation to the Illinois Penitentiary," 5 February 1847, RGA, 111.

13. Lewis, Chapter 4.

14. Convict No. 198, Alton Convict Register, first volume, typewritten transcript.

15. John W. Allen, It Happened in Southern Illinois (Johnston, IL, 1968), 275-76.

16. 1842 RGA, Report of the Committee on the Penitentiary, 12 January 1843, 324.

17. Dix, 106.

18. 1844 RGA, Report of the Inspectors of the Penitentiary, 6 December 1844, 5.

19. 1845 RGA, Report of the Inspectors of the Penitentiary, 9 December 1845, 242.

20. Dix, 106.

21. 1844 RGA, Report of the Minority of the Penitentiary Committee, 14 February 1845, 239-40.

22. All statistics on the female prison population are my calculations based on an identification of all female convicts listed in the Alton (3 volumes), Joliet (38 volumes), and Chester (1 volume) Convict Registers. Because no separate registers were kept for the female prisoners, every entry in the approximately six-hundred page volumes had to be searched in order to identify the female prisoners. For a fuller discussion, including a complete decade-by-decade analysis of the demographic profile of female prisoners, including changing patterns of criminality, ethnicity, race, age, marital status, number of children, education, occupation, and time served, see L. Mara Dodge, "Her Life Has Been an Improper One": Women, Crime, and Prisons in Illinois, 1835-1933 (Ph. D. diss., University of Illinois at Chicago, 1998).

23. 1853 RGA, Inspector's Report, 68.

24. 1857 RGA, Chaplain's Report, 5 January 1857, 453.

25. 1844 RGA, Report of the Minority of the Penitentiary Committee, 14 February 1845,239-40.

26. Contemporary sociological research also suggests that women's styles and forms of resistance to prison authority are still deemed more troublesome, disruptive, demanding, and difficult to handle by correctional officers today. See Joycelyn M. Pollock, Sex and Supervision: Guarding Male and Female Inmates (Westport, CT, 1990).

27. 1851 RGA, Report of the Inspectors of the Penitentiary, 16 January 1851, 62-63.

28. Joy Damousi. Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia (Cambridge, 1997), 22.

29. Ibid., 48.

30. A Prison Matron, Female Life in Prison (New York, 1862), 68. For the reactions of one British prison reformer to these views, see Mary Carpenter, Our Convicts (Montclair, NJ, 1969 reprint of 1864 work), Vol. II, Ch. IV "Female Convicts," 105-176. By the 1850s England had two national penitentiaries for women that housed six and four hundred prisoners each. These "female convict prisons" were entirely modeled after men's prisons. Ireland also opened a similar six-hundred cell female convict prison in the 1850s.

31. Ibid.

32. Such a reading emphasizes female agency within the penitentiary. Similarly, while acknowledging the brutality and exploitation which many women faced in southern prisons, Mary Ellen Curtin highlights how "in order to survive in prison, black women carved out valued relationships with male prisoners, children, and each other." See "The 'Human World' of Black Women in Alabama Prisons, 1870-1900," in Hidden Histories of Women in the New South, ed. Virginia Bernhard (Columbia, MO, 1994), 11-30, quote from p. 19. In contrast, in her provocative article, "Following the Rules? Women's Responses to Incarceration, New Zealand, 1880-1920," Journal of Social History 27 (Winter 1993): 309-25, Bronwyn Dalley argues that compliance and accommodation were the dominant patterns in New Zealand's women's prisons, but that these responses should be interpreted not as "failures" but as active survival strategies through which prisoners successfully shaped and used the prison to meet their own needs.

33. 1827 law quoted in Sanders, 38. Both gender and racial privileges were explicitly enshrined in Illinois' early law codes. Siegfried's study of the court records from half of Illinois' counties in the 1820s found only one example of a woman subjected to corporal punishment. This case was designated simply as that of "Phebe, a Woman of Color," who was sentenced to twenty lashes in August 1828 for the unspecified "crime" of "Misbehaviorin" (p. 32).

34. 1855 RGA, Inspector's Report, 125. This concern over pregnant women was repeated verbatim in the 1857 RGA, Inspector s Report, 442.

35. Ibid.

36. 1855 RGA, Warden's Report, 297.

37. Pardon file quoted from Nancy J. Harm, "Women Incarcerated in Illinois Prisons, 1843-1915: An Exploratory Study in Social Policy" (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois at Chicago, 1989), 102.

38. 1855 RGA, Report of the Joint (Legislative) Committee on the Penitentiary, 294.

39. Ibid.

40. 1857 RGA, Report of the Joint Committee, 247.

41. 1858 RGA, Warden's Report, November 1858, 319.

42. Ibid.

43. Freedman, 16.

44. Prison Photographer Sidney W. Wetmore, typewritten manuscript of a slideshow presentation script, pp. 44-45. Wetmore Collection, Manuscript Division, Chicago Historical Society.

45. Dalley, 312.

46. Pardon files quoted from Harm, 102.

47. Ibid., 99.

48. Executive Clemency Files, Illinois State Archives. Jennie Rose (#3136) Folder. 1866 Pardon Petition.

49. Harm, 100.

50. 1855 RGA, Report of the Joint Committee on the Penitentiary, 1 January, 293.

51. 1859 RGA, Architect's Report, 1 January 1859, 189-91.

52. 1861-62 RGA, Commissioner's Report, December 1862, 220.

53. 1861 RGA, "Guard's Duty," 80.

54. 1867 Laws of the State of Illinois, 24.

55. 1868 RGA, Personnel List, 54.

56. 1868 RGA, Warden's Report, 71.

57. 1868 RGA, Chaplain's Report, 187.

58. 1868 RGA, Physician's Report, 189-90.

59. 1870 RGA, Chaplain's Report, 70.

60. Patricia O'Brien The Promise of Punishment: Prisons in Nineteenth-Century France (Princeton, NJ, 1982), 54-55.

61. Ibid., 54.

62. For increases in female imprisonment during the 1860s see Freedman, 13 and Edith Abbott, "The Civil War and the Crime Wave of 1865-1870," Social Service Review 1 (June 1927): 212-34. This Civil War increase has commonly been attributed to the economic hardship that women experienced during the war years. In contrast, the number of men in prison declined in several states during the war, although in Illinois it remained stable, doubling in the second half of the decade.

63. Lori and Bill Granger, Lords of the Last Machine (New York, 1987), 89. On Irish assimilation nationally see Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York, 1995).

64. The percentage of African-American men in the male prison population also increased immediately after the Civil War, but not as dramatically. Similar to black women, black men were only 2% of the prison population in the 1850s. During the 1860s the black male percentage increased to 8% in contrast to 18% for females. Race was always more significant to the social construction of female criminality. Between 1890 and 1940 black men in Illinois represented approximately 20% of the male prison population in contrast to 42% for black women, percentages which reflected national trends.

65. The Illinois pattern reflected both regional and national trends. In 1880 29% of the female convicts present in midwestern prisons were African-American. By the 1904 prison census their percentage increased to a high of 48%. Rafter, 146.

66. 1894 Illinois State Penitentiary (Joliet), Biennial Report Commissioner's Report, 1894, 11.

67. S. W. Wetmore, Behind the Bars at Joliet: A Peep at a Prison, Its History, and Its Mysteries (Joliet, IL, 1892), 42. Wetmore was the official prison photographer at Joliet.

68. 1874 RGA, Warden's Report, 563.

69. 1876 RGA, Commissioner's Report, 14.

70. Ibid.

71. 1878 RGA, Chester, 17D. Note that the biennial reports from Chester were published both in the Reports to the General Assembly (RGA) and as a separate biennial report, titled the Report of the Commissioners of the Southern Illinois Penitentiary.

72. 1878 RGA, Chester, Report of the Commissioners, 38D.

73. 1882 RGA, Chester Report of the Commissioners, 17-18H.

74. 1884 Report of the Commissioners of the Southern Illinois Penitentiary (Chester), 6.

75. See Rules for the Government of Officers and Employees of the Southern Illinois Penitentiary (St. Louis: Globe-Democrat Job Printing Co., 1879), 10.

76. 1887 Laws of the State of Illinois, 320.

77. 1889 Laws of the State of Illinois, 218.
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Author:Dodge, L. Mara
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Jun 22, 1999
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