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Following the rules? Women's responses to incarceration, New Zealand, 1880-1920.

In May 1881, Catherine Driscoll was sentenced to a term of hard labor in the Dunedin prison. Within a month she was causing problems for the staff and other inmates. Following a disagreement with the matron over breakfast arrangements, Driscoll threw a plate of porridge at the officer and later used threatening language towards her. A week later Driscoll was cautioned for refusing to heed the orders of a male officer. In July she was once more in opposition to the staff members, using obscene language towards them, assaulting the assistant matron by striking her in the face with a boot, and breaking all the panes of glass in her cell window. Towards the end of her sentence Driscoll aroused the ire of another inmate after drenching her with a bowl of water.(1) In common with the majority of female prison inmates in New Zealand and elsewhere, Driscoll was detained for an offence against "good order," specifically vagrancy. The nature of this offence, a common charge, would suggest that those imprisoned for it might be disorderly. Driscoll's behavior was, however, the exception rather than the rule. The discrepancy between disorderly behavior on the outside and orderly behavior within the prison requires explanation.

A number of historians have concentrated on the more subversive elements of the prison population.(2) My aim in this paper is to suggest that, dramatic as cases like Driscoll's may be, such a focus distorts the reality of the prison situation. Women's compliance with the penal regime was the dominant pattern in New Zealand prison life from 1880 to 1920. The particular nature of women's offending in New Zealand, and the low number of women incarcerated, made cooperation with the regime likely. I wish to suggest that rather than seeing compliance as a form of failure on the part of the prison inmates, as some historians have interpreted it, adherence to the regime was an accommodation to a particular set of social circumstances. Mostly by following the rules and only occasionally challenging them, women offenders participated in shaping the environment of the prison.

Penal discipline incorporated a complex array of regulations designed to ensure the smooth management of the institution. In the face of an inmate population confined for its refusal to adhere to society's rules, the disciplinary system attempted to impose order on disorderly subjects. Regulations anticipated likely prisoner behavior, prohibiting activities such as attempting to abscond or refusing to work. The disciplinary regime also epitomized the need for uniformity within the institution. Quiet, meek inmates, acting in concert and according to a strict timetable not only made for a stable institutional environment but would, in theory, make prisoners amenable to the rules of the wider community.

As "total institutions," prisons were completely regulated and governed to seek an intensive control over the lives of their members.(3) The gaol aimed to be an "exhaustive disciplinary apparatus"(4) in which the inmates would be faceless and nameless, members of a group for whom decisions were made and who were left to react rather than act. Regulations governed an inmate's pattern of work, rest and recreation, as well as more personal and intimate matters. In part, the disciplinary system was an attempt to foster a dependency on the authority of the institutional system. Inmates would look to the regime for guidance and approval as they should, or would rely on other authorities outside the prison walls. Like dependent children, prisoners were deemed to require guidance to direct their behavior along the appropriate path. Activities, rights and privileges which, for adults, could be taken for granted in the outside world became a matter for strict regulation in the institution. The control of the prison was to be complete, pervasive and constant.

The concept of dependency was also an essential feature in the socialization of women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Contemporary ideals of femininity prescribed a woman's total dependency on others, a "majestic childishness" even in adulthood, when women were encouraged to live under the protection of husbands, fathers, brothers or sons and seek their guidance.(5) The institutional milieu accentuated and reinforced the dependent status of women, assuming the role of a surrogate family in which the women were the junior members.

Penal disciplinary systems functioned on a number of levels. Penalties were only one aspect of a "double system" of discipline, incorporating both gratification and punishment.(6) The coercive measures were more comprehensive than, but not distinct from, those which operated as controls in the wider community. The prison intensified the regulations of the wider society, continuing a "work begun elsewhere, which the whole of society pursues on each individual through innumerable mechanisms of discipline."(7) While the function of the penitential discipline was to "make" individuals, to "normalize" them and to assist the process of transformation, the prison was only one aspect of the "disciplinary society."(8) As Foucault argues, "'Discipline' may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power . . . ; it is a 'physics' or an 'anatomy' of power, a technology."(9)

The internal technology and organization of the institution would, however, always be difficult to sustain. To some extent, prisoners were expected to oppose the regime, for, from an institutional perspective, if the inmates were not rebellious, they would not be in prison in the first place.(10) Criminal or deviant behavior which led to incarceration branded the inmates as troublesome and likely to subvert institutional order.

Some inmates, of course, did match expectations. Inmate rebellion was the most obvious and dramatic evidence of a prisoner subculture--"social systems, informal communities, with their own power networks and cultural identifications."(11) Almost by definition, inmate subcultures existed below, and perhaps even unknown to, official perceptions of the penal discipline. As a consequence, only the most rebellious, dangerous, loud and potentially disruptive actions came to the attention of the prison authorities. Prisoners who overtly flaunted the gaol regulations helped shape prison life. As O'Brien argues, prisoners did not leave their identities behind them in free society to adopt completely the new behavior patterns the institution attempted to impose on them from above.(12) The penalties which inmates received exemplify something of the disjunction between their own experiences and the requirements of the penal system.

Inmate communication was fundamental in formulating prisoner relationships and social systems. To suppress communication was of paramount importance to the prison authorities. In New Zealand institutions, inmates were expected to labor together in silence, and notes, letters and messages were forbidden. "Unnecessary" noises after lock-up were punishable, and prisoners had to request permission before communicating with other inmates.(13) Isolation and intensive staff control were central in ensuring the minimum of communication. Yet the very nature of women's incarceration was inimical to restricted communication. Officials expressed an unwillingness to confine women separately in the belief that it was detrimental to women's more social and dependent natures.(14) Although there was an attempt to keep recidivist women in separate cells,(15) association was the norm in women's institutions, particularly in prisons which had insufficient space for individual facilities. Even separated women could find means to communicate with each other. Estella and Mary McKegney, for instance, both frequent offenders, were confined separately in the Auckland prison in 1895 but managed to keep in touch simply by shouting to each other along the length of the corridor.(16) Moreover, only two prisons during the period regularly employed more than one or two officers in the female division. The low number of officers, even in those institutions which had few inmates, could not effectively suppress illicit communication.

As a consequence there appears to have been a degree of networking between the women, and between the female and male prisoners. In 1906, for instance, Minnie O'Connor wrote a note to a male inmate and attempted to pass it to him by placing it in a rubbish bucket. A warder noticed, retrieved the letter, reported her to the gaoler and O'Connor received three days on a restricted diet.(17) Punishments awarded for quarrelling indicate less friendly inmate relationships. Minnie Aldridge, for instance, decided to end an ongoing dispute with another inmate by attacking the woman with a pair of scissors while they were both employed in the sewing room.(18)

Women's networking rarely took the form of concerted action, which is one indication that the focus on subversion can easily be exaggerated. Indeed, individual rather than group protest, by women and men, was the characteristic form of opposition to penal discipline in New Zealand and elsewhere.(19) Opportunistic acts predominated, as prisoners took advantage of particular circumstances or rejected aspects of the discipline which they found to be especially irksome. The few documented cases of women's collective actions in the nineteenth century occurred under very specific circumstances. Women at London's Millbank prison gained the reputation for being riotous because of their traditional gaol-wrecking spree on the eve of their transportation to Australia.(20) Greeted with the news that all transportation was to cease from 1853, the incarcerated women rioted in protest at the prospect of serving several years in detention in English institutions.(21) In New Zealand, there is no female equivalent of the strike mounted by the men at the Lyttelton prison in protest at a new classification scheme, or the league formed among male inmates at the Auckland gaol with the avowed intention of attacking prison officers.(22)

To some extent the nature of the women's penal environment shaped the pattern of inmate response. The rapid turnover of a small number of short-term women prisoners in New Zealand meant an organized group response was unlikely. Women formed a minority of the prison population over the period, never comprising more than 20% of inmates; from 1900 the percentage of women in the prison population fell markedly, until by 1920, women made up only 6% of the total. The number of female admissions ranged from a maximum of 1,071 in 1883 to a minimum of 285 in 1919; on average, there were about 650 admissions each year. The actual number of individual women imprisoned was much lower as over 70% of the female inmate population was recidivist. If each woman is counted only once, the average yearly number of individuals admitted was about 250. The majority of the women was imprisoned for terms of less than three months.(23) This "transit camp"(24) aspect of women's incarceration could impede the development of relationships necessary for group response. In addition, the women were housed in many of the approximately twenty small and large prisons throughout the country, and although a separate women's prison was established in 1913, other gaols continued to receive female inmates. Individual prisons sometimes housed very low numbers of women, or received them so infrequently that a group reaction was unlikely.

Compared to men's experience, women's imprisonment was very restrictive. Women passed most of their sentences indoors, they had few opportunities for fresh air or a change of scenery, and because their work skills were not in demand, they had little prospect of being transferred between institutions. Confinement with only one or two other women and the sometimes close surveillance of staff members could be conducive to discord. In 1904, for example, the Wanganui Gaoler reported that the state of the female division was driving him to distraction. The division contained five women, but only had three cells. For health reasons, two of the prisoners had to have their own cells. The other three women confined together in the remaining cell had begun fighting between themselves, and the gaoler had been compelled to call for assistance to separate them.(25) For women in close confinement with others, frustration and anger at their limited circumstances could erupt in violence and hostility.

Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge have suggested that women prisoners, unlike men, tended to direct their hostility towards their physical environment, rather than at other inmates and staff. They argue that women were more likely to destroy the contents of their cells, tear up their clothing and smash the windows in their cells, reactions commonly described as "fits" or "breaking out."(26) The New Zealand sources, however, do not support similar conclusions. While "breaking out" appears to have been a term specifically applied to women's actions, male prisoners responded in similar ways.(27) Both women and men attempted to escape, attacked officers and other inmates, disobeyed orders, stole items, attempted suicide, created disturbances and destroyed prison property.

Women who were punished for "breaking out" were frequently individuals who had led relatively independent lifestyles outside the prison; prisoners' backgrounds, then, could be important in shaping their responses. Those women who had earned their living by prostitution, who had no stable home, who were drunken and obstreperous, and who persistently offended may not have been willing to adhere to all aspects of the institutional regime. By the late 1880s, for example, Eliza Lestrange had over 50 convictions for vagrancy, drunkenness and abusive conduct. At the end of 1887 she spent three weeks in solitary confinement following an outburst in protest at her two year sentence. On release from isolation, Lestrange pledged that she would behave well for the rest of her sentence, but immediately began to create problems by refusing to eat her meals in her cell. In response, the gaoler refused to unlock her for the exercise period. The prisoner took umbrage with this and commenced shouting

the most disgusting language she could give tongue to and tearing up her clothing and throwing it out through the trap of her door which she had smashed out, and calling out |"~come on and put your Bloody handcuffs on now|"~.

The gaoler managed to secure her in handcuffs and remove her to another cell, but she remained fractious for the remainder of the day. Later that day, and after Lestrange had promised once more to behave well, the gaoler removed the cuffs and provided her with blankets. He believed her to be perfectly sane, but of a "vicious and ungovernable mind."(28) Six months later, Lestrange "broke out" again. Following a punishment for tearing up her blankets and refusing orders, Lestrange was removed to her cell where she became abusive and threatening. She maintained the disturbance during the afternoon, employing the "most obscene" and vile language. Finally the gaoler attempted to restrain her physically. A male officer pinioned the prisoner's arms and legs to prevent her biting and kicking the matron who endeavored to remove the front portions of the prisoner's clothing. Despite the restraints, Lestrange continued her unruly conduct throughout the evening, tearing up blankets and remaining boisterous until the next day.(29)

For women used to being responsible for their own decisions, the very deprivation of liberty could provoke a response, although escapes were extremely rare. Of the 27 reported attempts between 1919 and 1921, for example, only one was made by a woman.(30) Maka Kainoka, a young woman from Wanganui with several previous convictions, was sentenced to two years with reformative detention in the Addington prison for charges of breaking and entering and theft. Two days after her admission to the Wanganui prison, where she was held pending her transfer to Addington, she made a desperate and opportunistic bid to escape. She hid behind her cell door, and as the gaoler unlocked it, Kainoka rushed out. Unfortunately for her, the gaoler seized her and forced her back into the cell, using "personal violence" to remain clear of her attempts to bite and hit him.(31)

Other escape attempts, however, were better organized. Margaret Webster, another frequent offender who was serving a three month term for willful damage and being on premises illegally, concealed a pair of scissors and a small screwdriver in her boots when cleaning the sewing room at the Lyttelton prison. She used these items to cut away the woodwork surrounding the lock on her cell door. Once out of the cell she gathered her mattress, pillow and some dustboxes to erect a makeshift platform from which she climbed to an upper window. She had already fashioned a rope ladder from her blankets, and a shirt and tie which she had presumably also pilfered from the sewing room. Webster intended to jump from the fence surrounding the women's division to the gaoler's garden beneath, using the rope as support. The rope ladder was insufficient to maintain her weight and she fell loudly into the gaoler's yard, was apprehended and returned to her cell. The gaoler explained away his staff's ignorance of Webster's activities by confirming that she was particularly untruthful, troublesome, and was an "artist" at prison breaking.(32)

It was more common for women to reject specific aspects of their confinement rather than rebelling against the entire regime, which "breaking out" or escaping entailed. Some women took exception to the extensive range of rules regulating their behavior and personal habits. Women who, on the outside, did not have a regular income or home, sometimes objected to being told when to work, what to wear, and when to wash. Eliza Lestrange, who was either out of work or supported herself by prostitution, refused to work when ordered, claiming that she "would not do a stroke of work" for the government.(33) Margaret Williams, also without regular work on the outside but usually compliant in gaol, refused to do any work during one three month sentence, and, when pressed, became very abusive and threatening towards the officer concerned.(34)

Some of these women particularly objected to the official jurisdiction exercised over aspects of their personal hygiene, such as washing, changing clothes or having a tidy cell. Catherine Driscoll, frequently imprisoned, refused to wash or change her stockings when ordered.(35) Eliza Lestrange would not wash at the required times, and became very antagonistic towards the gaoler when he attempted to force her to comply.(36) The controls over the prisoner's hygiene were a critical part of the discipline of the total institution. Not only did they emphasize the intrusion of the regime into all aspects of an inmate's life--in theory, adult women and men did not need reminding when to wash--they represented the degree of control extended over prisoners' bodies as well as their behavior; the disciplinary system "made" bodies.(37) Instruction in all facets of discipline and order were essential in punishing, treating or transforming individuals. For women in particular, the personal hygiene regulations illustrated their infantilisation and dependent status within the prison regime. If remaining in a child-like state even in adulthood was a feature of nineteenth-century perceptions of femininity, then encouraging and reinforcing that state in prison would be crucial.(38) Infantilisation in one form or another was a major feature of women's detention in New Zealand and elsewhere.(39) Refusing to comply with the personal hygiene regulations may have been one way for women to maintain some control over the more intimate aspects of their lives.

Those women who persisted in opposing the discipline in ways regarded as unfeminine were, at times, perceived to be mad. Annie Gahan's five day "break out" in 1901 took, in the Wanganui gaoler's view, a particularly dangerous and immodest turn. He described the prisoner as a "raging lunatic" who "smashes everything she can get hold of, shouts and howls like a wild beast, and is disgustingly filthy both in language and habits." Gahan had kept the prison disturbed for a number of days and nights, and prevented officers and other inmates from sleeping. The gaoler requested that she be medically examined after she had emptied the contents of the toilet over the exercise yard.(40) What was perceived as a total abandonment of feminine standards of decency and propriety was sufficient to prompt a demand for medical examinations to certify the women's sanity. "Breaking out" was rarely identified with mental illness unless it incorporated these particularly "unseemly" actions. Neither prison officers nor gaol surgeons considered the possibility that the gaol conditions could have initiated or accelerated a woman's alleged madness.

Despite these examples of inmate rebellion against aspects of the penal regime, overt rejection of the discipline was the least common form of prisoner response to confinement. The evidence from New Zealand and elsewhere suggests that the overwhelming response of both female and male prisoners to their detention was compliance, adaptation and adjustment to the regime.(41) The highly routinized nature of the institutional environment left little to chance, and ensured minimal variation in the pattern. The journals of matrons and gaolers from New Zealand institutions create a mundane impression of prison life, in which one day's events appear much the same as those of the preceding day. Occasionally, accounts of inmate opposition punctuate the records. These were usually reported in considerable detail, emphasizing the infrequency of the occurrences. Prison officers frequently commented about the extent of the good behavior among inmates. One officer noted that "prisoners can invariably see that good conduct carries certain privileges, and only a few 'kick over the traces' occasionally; most of them recognize that strict discipline is necessary, and nearly all conform cheerfully to it."(42) Another believed that there would inevitably be an amount of unrest because of the "small section of malcontents who occasionally set authority at defiance."(43) For most of the time, the majority of prisoners served their sentences adhering to the discipline, or at least not overtly challenging it.

It appears that the prison authorities did not expect women inmates to rebel against their confinement, as few women's divisions had special facilities for women undergoing punishment for prison offences. The Auckland gaol, and later the Wellington prison and Addington women's prison were the only prisons to provide specific solitary confinement or padded cells for fractious women, but these were always added well after the establishment of the institution itself. Those gaols without the necessary arrangements had to adopt a makeshift policy, employing cells in male divisions, or simply confining the troublesome individual in an ordinary cell adjacent to the other inmates in the female wing. For instance Ellen Hart, alias Annie Taylor, passed her term of solitary confinement in a cell next to the other women, as the Wanganui gaol had no special arrangement for unruly women. Hart occupied her time threatening and terrifying her neighbors until, in the gaoler's view, they all lived in mortal fear of her.(44)

Some studies, however, have emphasized the disciplinary problems among women prisoners, suggesting that not only were women disorderly inmates, but that they caused more problems than imprisoned men, or were punished more frequently than men. Ann Smith has commented on the disciplinary problems in women's divisions in English prisons, particularly after the suspension of transportation to Australia in 1853.(45) Sean McConville expands this point to argue that during the nineteenth century "female convicts were a source of well-nigh intractable disciplinary problems", and were possibly more troublesome than men.(46) Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge claim that while women exhibited a "general outward compliance" with the penal regimes, particularly in the early part of the nineteenth century, there were also "persistent resistances" to the discipline.(47)

The New Zealand evidence suggests a different pattern. From a total gaol population which fluctuated between approximately 3,500 and 5,000 total admittals annually between 1880 and 1920, there were usually fewer than 300 punishments recorded each year for breaches of the prison regulations. Most of the recipients of the punishments were men. For all but six of the 40 years examined, women committed less than 10% of the total number of breaches of penal discipline, and usually less than 5%. Even in those years when women did account for more than 10% of prison offences, they never formed more than 14% of the total. The level was always well below women's representation in the total prison population, which ranged between 20% and 6% of inmates.(48)

The conclusions reached by historians such as Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge, who contend that prison officials were less tolerant of women's infractions of the rules and that women were punished more harshly and more frequently for activities which sometimes went unpenalized when committed by men, are not borne out in the New Zealand context.(49) In fact, it appears that in contrast with men, women in New Zealand received fewer punishments and were treated less harshly for similar infractions of the rules. Women were never subject to the harshest penal discipline of corporal punishment or being placed in irons. In 1890, for example, of the approximately 300 reported prison offences, women committed less than 3% of the total, although women formed about 15% of the prison population at this time.(50) In the Auckland prison during 1911 there were 123 prison offences, only one of which was committed by a woman; throughout the year, the gaol had received 1,521 men and 136 women.(51) The establishment of a separate women's prison in 1913 had little effect on the number of women committing prison offences. Between 1914 and 1920, when the Addington institution held up to one-third of all imprisoned women, the inmates there committed less than 5% of the total prison offences.(52)

The apparent difference between the French, North American and New Zealand pattern of adaptation and compliance in contrast with the English evidence of resistance requires explanation. Distinctions in the female prisoner population of each country do not adequately account for the pattern of inmate responses. The profile of the female prisoner population in each area followed a similar pattern, with the majority of women charged with either behavioral crimes or petty theft. Indeed, in contrast with the North American and New Zealand trend, the majority of French and English inmates were imprisoned for theft rather than for the rowdy public order offences such as vagrancy, obscene language or disorderly conduct.(53)

Similarly, differences in prison administration do not fully explain the distinctions in inmate response. While there were major differences between the English and French pattern of penal management, the New Zealand system developed directly out of the English gaol administration of the mid-nineteenth century. New Zealand's first Inspector of Prisons, Arthur Hume, was appointed in 1880 for his experience in English prison administration and his willingness to implement in New Zealand some of the findings of the 1878 commission into English institutions.(54) During his term in office Hume transformed the New Zealand penal system, relying heavily on English precedent and practice, and by the time of his retirement in 1909, New Zealand officials acknowledged that the local system had not moved beyond methods in vogue in England in the 1870s.(55)

While it may be that English female prisoners were simply more rebellious than others or served longer prison sentences, the explanation for the differences in the pattern of inmate response may lie in historians' failure to explore fully the range of reactions, and acknowledge that compliance and adaptation, as much as defiance, constitute part of the inmate subcultural response. Rowdy, rebellious women, flaunting conventions and regulations not only shatter stereotypes of passive Victorian womanhood, but also confirm our--perhaps hoped for--suspicions that prisons were not successful in imposing order and discipline on unwilling subjects.

But acceptance of the penal regime should not automatically be interpreted as passivity, and examples of women following the rules should not necessarily be read as docility. Compliance with the system does not imply that inmates absorbed the philosophy of punishment or reformation. Beneath an outward veneer of co-operation, the prison regulations may have had scant effect on the inmates and compliance may be little more than window-dressing. Levels of recidivism certainly suggest that the compliant behavior displayed in prison was not continued on the outside. Considering the inducements to good behavior and the system of rewards and privileges which permeated penal discipline, observance of the regulations could have been the most attractive option for inmates, and one which could act to their advantage in terms of remission and classification.

Women who adhered to the disciplinary regime indicate as much about the nature of the institutional environment as those who rejected the regulations. Indeed, given the nature of women's offending and punishment in New Zealand, the extent of women's co-operation with the discipline may illustrate more about women's imprisonment and their lives on the outside than the examples of those women who defied the regime.

Most women appearing before the courts were charged with behavioral offences, the public order transgressions such as vagrancy, prostitution-related offences, drunkenness, and language or conduct transgressions. In comparison with men, few women were apprehended or imprisoned for violent or property crimes.(56) Over 70% of imprisoned women were charged with public order offences compared with about half of the male prisoner population.(57) Of those women imprisoned for public order offences, most were convicted of vagrancy or drunkenness.(58) Vagrancy in particular was interpreted very broadly, including prostitution-related charges or offensive conduct, and could be used as a means of clearing the streets of bothersome individuals or women deemed to be acting in an unseemly manner.(59) Between 1880 and 1920, recidivists accounted for more than 70% of the female prisoner population, compared with one-third to one-half of the male. These women were, moreover, highly recidivist. While men were more often casual offenders, convicted only once, over 60% of women inmates had three or more previous convictions.(60) A behavioral, highly recidivist pattern of women's offending was repeated throughout Australia, Western Europe and the United States during the period.(61)

The differences in the female and male patterns of arrest and imprisonment suggest important distinctions in the social roles of the sexes. Men's higher participation in crimes involving theft or violence, for example, may reflect their varied work patterns and opportunities to commit crime. The differences are also indicative of the distinctive behavioral expectations for women and men. Contemporary perceptions of femininity held women to be well-behaved, morally-upright, domestic and maternal, submissive and respectable. Women whose lifestyles fell outside these parameters of acceptable conduct were perceived as a danger to the moral and social fibre of the community, and their repeated offending a proof of their irredeemability. New Zealand prison officials were convinced of the degraded condition of female criminals, considering them as "pests" who wreaked havoc in the community,(62) and "long past all possibility of reformation."(63)

In general these allegedly unruly and disorderly women did not wreak havoc in the prison, despite the fact that the penal regime imposed a wide range of regulations on supposedly unregulated lives. That most women, for most of the time, did not actively work against the system is one of the more significant features of women's incarceration. A number of reasons can account for women's compliance. Conformity to the institutional discipline was the safest and most attractive option for inmates. Prisons offered powerful inducements for good behavior in the form of rewards and privileges. Women did not lose anything by adhering to the rules, but could, in contrast, gain considerable benefits, particularly good behavior marks which aided their petitions for early release. The very fact of not running the risk of receiving some form of additional punishment or loss of privilege may have been an incentive sufficient to promote compliance. For some women, eating their meals in the appropriate manner, obeying the officers, performing the requisite labor or remaining on good terms with their sister inmates, was preferable to rejecting the discipline and spending periods in solitary confinement, suffering dietary restrictions or forsaking remission marks.

Until 1883 in New Zealand inmates could also have their sentences increased for prison offences as visiting justices to the prisons had the power to impose additional terms of imprisonment for each major transgression of the institutional regulations. An inquiry into the Dunedin prison in 1883 revealed that the local justices had abused these powers and awarded extra sentences far in excess of the original term. Mary Sullivan, for example, sentenced to 12 months with hard labor, served 16 months in all following the imposition of a further one month sentence for unlawfully having a piece of lead pencil in her cell, and a further three month sentence for assaulting another inmate; Catherine Driscoll, whose activities have already been described, had her six-month term for vagrancy extended to ten months; Catherine Loney, serving a 14 day sentence for vagrancy, eventually remained in prison for five months following further terms for disorderly conduct and smuggling alcohol into the institution.(64) In these circumstances, behaving in the desired manner entailed distinct advantages.

Obeying the prison regulations could give some women an opportunity to improve their situation after release. In 1918, for instance, Isa Outhwaite, an official visitor to the Auckland gaol, was instrumental in gaining a domestic service position for Jessie Alexander, a recently discharged and well-behaved inmate. Despite the heavy nature of the work, Alexander expressed her gratitude to Outhwaite for the assistance. Alexander was glad of the fact that she now had a home and steady job, which kept her "out of all harm" and removed her from former companions who could lead her astray. When she wrote to Outhwaite requesting news of prison events, Alexander gave an assurance that she would never again be in trouble or suffer from the effects of alcohol.(65)

The high level of recidivism may have also affected the degree of compliance among imprisoned women. Inmates who had served many terms in prison could become familiar with the regime. As O'Brien argues, recidivists were "Wise in prison ways, they knew most about power and survival in the institution."(66) Frequent inmates such as Margaret Williams alias "Opium Mag" seldom outwardly challenged the penal discipline. Williams served at least 140 prison terms, but received very few punishments for infractions of the regulations; some recidivists learned to live within the prison rules. Similarly, the small number of women confined and the transit camp nature of their imprisonment reduced the potential for conflict between inmates, or between inmates and staff members. The good order offences for which women were incarcerated could earn very brief prison terms, sometimes a matter of days or hours; irksome rules could be tolerated for a short period.

Even the types of offences for which women were committed could promote acceptance of the penal regime. For some of the high proportion of women convicted of vagrancy or drunkenness, the prison served an important welfare function. Until the expansion of welfare provisions for the aged, the widowed, the unemployed or the sick from the late 1930s, facilities for the destitute in New Zealand were not extensive.(67) The level of official benefits was low, and they were restricted in scope to dissuade individuals from approaching the government for assistance, encouraging them to rely instead on private services. Despite the range of regulations governing institutional life, gaols could be an attractive prospect for women without steady accommodation, work or alternative support bases such as family and friends. In this respect, the prison functioned as part of a network of welfare institutions which included charitable or benevolent homes for the elderly, the indigent and the destitute. The range of these institutions increased from the beginning of the twentieth century, but the prison still retained its welfare function, in part because of the refusal of some other institutions to admit individuals with drinking problems. The provision of a regular supply of food, clothing, shelter and companionship in the prisons may have encouraged a woman to comply with the regime to gain access to what were, in effect, tangible benefits.

For frequent offenders such as Opium Mag, the prison occupied a central and crucial role in her life. Williams had neither friends, family nor regular work in New Zealand. Shortly after her arrival in Dunedin in the 1870s, she became addicted to opium and alcohol. She settled in an area of town commonly known as the "Devil's Half-Acre," populated by the Chinese and Lebanese migrants as well as prostitutes and some of their customers. Here Williams too earned her living by prostitution. Williams became well-known to the police and as a consequence of her frequent convictions for drunkenness, vagrancy and prostitution-related charges, passed a considerable part of her life in prison. In Williams's case, imprisonment was a self-perpetuating condition. Her lifestyle and addictions exposed her to surveillance and apprehension, but the repeated gaol terms provided her with little opportunity to adopt some other mode of life. She travelled extensively up and down the country, becoming known to the police, courts and prisons in each center very quickly. In Auckland the police found her sitting on a doorstep where she had slept for the two previous nights, having no money, no home and no acquaintances. Pakatoa Island, the home for alcoholics, had refused to admit her, and the magistrate believed that he had no option but to send her to prison where she would, at least, receive food and shelter during the winter. Later that year Williams was arrested for soliciting aims, and asked that she be sent back to prison, presumably for the amenities the gaol could provide for her. Williams continued to work as a prostitute until well in her sixties, and as a result, continued her life-cycle of arrest, conviction, imprisonment and release. Rather than creating problems in the institution or attempting to assert the relative yet costly independence she displayed on the outside, Williams lived within the penal regime, taking advantage of the facilities the gaols supplied.(68)

Williams's experiences exemplify the limited options facing some women around the turn of the century. For young women who would not, or could not, earn their living by domestic service, employment opportunities were few, although increasing by the early twentieth century.(69) Immigrant women who arrived in New Zealand on their own without the familiar support group of relatives or friends could encounter bleak prospects.(70) Women with few other opportunities or sources of shelter and sustenance may not have considered prison as the worst alternative open to them.

Historians have overlooked the importance of this aspect of imprisonment. While the significance of the welfare functions of the institutions should not be exaggerated at the expense of the disciplinary focus and the power relationships the prison embodied, the prison's varied use by its recipients must be recognized. Women could and did employ the gaol for their own ends, and placed their own interpretation on what imprisonment entailed. The process of incarceration was not one-dimensional, but served a myriad of purposes for both the imprisoners and the imprisoned. As Michael Ignatieff suggested, the relationship between the prison and the outside world was a vital aspect of the meanings of incarceration.(71) The social welfare aspect of imprisonment represents one interface between the prison and the community whose varied interests it served. For some in the community, the meanings of imprisonment could be something other than a matter for shame, "a fate to be endured" or a "dreaded place of suffering."(72) The prison, like the other state institutions such as the asylum, the courts or the police, could be used by the community for welfare services or a means of solving conflict.

Women's socialization also contributed to the degree of compliance. Unlike men, women's patterns of socialization and education emphasized compliance and passivity, attributes bolstered by contemporary perceptions of femininity which presented women as non-threatening, reactive rather than active. That some women may have internalized aspects of this ideology in an environment which emphasized their dependency and childlike status should not be discounted. Conversely, being treated as children when they had been socialized to act as dependent adults, may account for men's greater degree of hostility towards the penal regimes in New Zealand.

The less frequent incidence of reported offences and punishments among women prisoners suggests important distinctions between women's and men's incarceration and their lives outside prison. Women's imprisonment in New Zealand was characterized by short-term sentences and the rapid turnover of a small number of inmates, both of which could hinder the development of tension expressed in either personal violence or abuse. Some women were able to adjust to the restrictions placed on them for the brief period of their detention. Escape need not be considered when women were confined for a few weeks or days. The small amount of women's reported opposition also reflects the success of the inducements to good behavior that operated as part of the penal discipline. The threat of solitary confinement, bread and water diets or loss of good behavior marks may have been sufficient to deter women from rebelling. In the prison environment, women's socialization could be expressed in closer adherence to the institution's disciplinary regime.

Women's reactions to their detention suggest a variety of ways of coping with and adjusting to imprisonment. Rejection of the prison discipline, modification of the regime or compliance with the regulations were all important and interrelated elements of the inmate subculture and the variety of disciplines which existed in the institution. A woman's activities could range across the spectrum of possible reactions, but the predominance of compliance was a significant aspect of women's incarceration. Here the value of localized studies is clear. The short-term and recidivist nature of women's imprisonment in New Zealand created an environment in which compliance, rather than rebellion, was likely to be the norm.

Yet we must not view the extent of women's compliance as an inevitable consequence of the power of the penal regime or as evidence of inmate or working-class passivity. Following the rules was not always what it seemed. Compliance with the disciplinary regime, for whatever the reason, does not automatically suggest acceptance of the penal philosophy or submersion in the rules. Recidivists such as Margaret Williams still offended frequently, despite an outward compliance with the system; co-operation did not inspire "reform." Rather than interpreting adherence to the regime as a passive measure, we can view it as a more active response, evidence of a multiplicity of disciplines within the penal institution and the wider community. By doing this, it is possible to begin move away from the paradigm which presents prison inmates in terms of victims, the "anvils on which the hammer of repression beats out its inexorable tattoo."(73) Prisoners participated in their own incarceration; they too played a part in the reproduction of order. Incarceration embodied a range of meanings that went beyond an imposed discipline and punishment, as women brought into the institution their own perceptions of what imprisonment entailed. Women's reactions to their detention provide us with a key to the patterns of life within the institution and to the varied relationship between the prison and the community whose varied interests it served.


1. J40 PD Box 7, 82/640 Additional sentences for prison offences since passing of Prisons Act '73; J40 PD Box 21 85/866 Jas Caldwell D/dn. Refusing to accept Minister's decision on his charges against Capt. Hume. The J40 PD refers to Justice Department files, Prison Branch, National Archives, Wellington, New Zealand. Thanks to Dr. Barbara Brookes for comments on the final draft of this article.

2. For example see Russell P. Dobash, R. Emerson Dobash and Sue Gutteridge, The Imprisonment of Women (Oxford, 1986), pp. 77-88.

3. Erving Goffman, Asylums. Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Chicago, 1962), xiii.

4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison (Harmondsworth, 1977), p. 235.

5. Deborah Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (Bloomington, 1982), p. 6.

6. Foucault, p. 180.

7. Ibid., pp. 302-303.

8. Ibid., pp. 170ff.

9. Ibid., p. 215.

10. Goffman, pp. 383-85.

11. Patricia O'Brien, The Promise of Punishment. Prisons in Nineteenth-Century France (Princeton, 1982), p. 77.

12. Ibid., pp. 75-76.

13. New Zealand Gazette, vol. II, 1883, p. 1682.

14. Report of the Inspector of Prisons, Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (hereafter AJHR), 1882, H6, p. 2.

15. Department of Justice, Prisons Branch, AJHR, 1889, H7, p. 3.

16. Gaoler, Auckland to Hume, 28 May 1895, J40 PD Box 62, 95/361 Gaoler, Auckland. Report against the Sisters McKegney.

17. Punishment register, 1906, J40 PD Box 115, 1906/1252 Gaoler, Wellington. General Return, etc. October 1906.

18. J40 PD Box 130, 1908/1262 Gaoler, Wellington. General Return, etc. November 1908.

19. O'Brien, pp. 73, 77.

20. Michael Ignatieff, A Just Measure of Pain. The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850 (New York, 1978), p. 203.

21. Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge, pp. 79-80.

22. Thomas Young Wilson, "New Zealand Prisons 1880-1909: The Administration of Colonel Arthur Hume," M.A. thesis (Victoria University of Wellington, 1970), pp. 94-99; J40 PD Box 153 1912/2/12 Jailer, Auckland and J. H. Hannan, VJ re/proposed League.

23. Statistics of New Zealand, 1880-1920.

24. Frances Heidensohn, Women and Crime (Houndmills, 1985), p. 71.

25. Gaoler Beasley to Inspector of Prisons, 21 October 1904, J40 PD Box 102, 1904/1094, Transfer of Prisoner Lily Brown to the Wellington Lunatic Asylum.

26. Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge, p. 82; Judith R. Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society. Women, class and the state (Cambridge, 1980), p. 224.

27. For example, 18-20 January 1890, JC-WG 31/14 and 18 August-7 September 1901, JC-WG 31/17. Justice Courts, Wanganui. Justice Department files, National Archives, Wellington, New Zealand.

28. Gaoler, Auckland to Hume, 16 November 1887 and 19 December 1887, J40 PD Box 31, 87/1252 Gaoler, Auckland. Prisoner Eliza Lestrange has had another outbreak.

29. Gaoler, Auckland to Hume, 8 June 1888, J40 PD Box 35, 88/464 Gaoler, Auckland. Prisoner Eliza Lestrange sentenced to 21 days close confinement.

30. J40 PD Box 218, 1920/20/68 Re/Escapes from Prisons and Institutions Part 2.

31. 4 June 1916, JC-WG 31/21, Gaoler's journal 1914-1917.

32. New Zealand Police Gazette, 1890; J40 PD Box 49, 90/904 Gaoler, Lyttelton. Attempted escape of Prisoner Margaret Webster.

33. Star, 17 December 1887, J40 PD Box 31, 87/1252.

34. J40 PD Box 93, 1903/319 Gaoler, Dunedin. General Returns. March 1903.

35. J40 PD Box 21, 85/866 Jas Caldwell D/dn. Refusing to accept Minister's decision on his charges against Capt. Hume.

36. Gaoler, Auckland to Hume, 8 June 1888, J40 PD Box 35, 88/464.

37. Foucault, pp. 135-41, 231-33.

38. Gorham, p. 6.

39. Nicole Hahn Rafter, "Chastising the Unchaste: Social Control Functions of a Women's Reformatory, 1894-1931," in Stanley Cohen and Andrew Scull, eds., Social Control and the State (Oxford, 1985), p. 299.

40. 2-9 July 1901, JC-WG 31/17, Gaolers' journal 1899-1902.

41. Estelle Freedman, Their Sisters' Keepers. Women's Prison Reform in America, 1830-1930 (Ann Arbor, 1981), p. 100; O'Brien, pp. 77-88.

42. Department of Justice, Prisons Branch, AJHR, H20, 1919, p. 13.

43. Department of Justice, Prisons Branch, AJHR, H20, 1912, p. 12.

44. Gaoler, Wanganui to Hume, 8 January 1901, J40 PD Box 81, 1901/17 Gaoler, Wanganui. Asking for transfer of Prisoner Ellen Hart.

45. Ann D. Smith, Women in Prison. A Study in Penal Methods (London, 1962), p. 92.

46. Sean McConville, A history of English prison administration, volume I 1750-1877 (London, 1981), pp. 414-15.

47. Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge, p. 78.

48. See Reports of the Prisons Branch, Department of Justice, AJHR, 1880-1920; Statistics of New Zealand, 1880-1920.

49. Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge, pp. 84-87.

50. Department of Justice, Prisons Branch, AJHR, 1890, H4, pp. 11-16. Details of the number of punishments given out between 1880 and 1913 show only the initials of an inmate, the institution in which she or he was confined, and the name of the reporting officer. By tracing the reports made by female staff, those most likely to have reported a woman's activities, it is possible to provide some indication of the number of offences which women committed. Estimates are more specific after the opening of the first separate women's prison at Addington in 1913, although women in mixed institutions remain undifferentiated.

51. Department of Justice, Prisons Branch, AJHR, 1912, H20, p. 8.

52. Department of Justice, Prisons Branch, AJHR, 1914-1921, H20.

53. Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge, pp. 90-93; Freedman, pp. 11-14; O'Brien, pp. 64-66.

54. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates (hereafter NZPD), vol. 35, 1880, p. 454.

55. NZPD, vol. 150, 1910, p. 353.

56. Charlotte Macdonald, "Crime and Punishment in New Zealand, 1840-1913: A Gendered History," New Zealand Journal of History 23 (April 1989): 10-11.

57. Statistics of New Zealand, 1880-1920.

58. Ibid., 1908-1920.

59. Judith Allen, "Policing in Australia," in Mark Finnane, ed., Policing in Australia. Historical Perspectives (Kensington, NSW, 1987), p. 202; Hilary Golder and Judith Allen, "Prostitution in New South Wales 1870-1932: re-structuring an industry," Refractory Girl 18/19 (December 1979): 117; Harvey J. Graff, "'Pauperism, Misery, and Vice': Illiteracy and Criminality in the Nineteenth Century," Journal of Social History 11 (Summer, 1977): 264; David Jones, Crime protest, community and police in nineteenth-century Britain (London, 1982), pp. 165, 198; Macdonald, "Crime and Punishment," p. 13.

60. Macdonald, "Crime and Punishment," pp. 14-15; Statistics of New Zealand, 1880-1920.

61. See Allen, "Policing in Australia"; Dobash, Dobash and Gutteridge, pp. 90-97; Freedman, pp. 10-12; O'Brien, pp. 54-66.

62. Charles Matthews to Mr. Bundle, 1 July 1922 and to Stipendiary Magistrates, 12 July 1922, J40 Bundle 10, 1922/13/8 suggested dealing with old and many times convicted offenders (especially women) under Sec. 30, sub-sec (1) of CA Act, 1910.

63. AJHR, 1882, H6, p. 2.

64. J40 PD Box 7, 82/640; J40 PD Box 10, 83/166 Gaoler, Dunedin. Additional imprisonments showing officers who reported and VJ who sentenced.

65. Jessie Alexander to Isa Outhwaite, n.d., J40 PD Box 204, 1918/20/6 Isa Outhwaite, Official Visitor, Auck. Re/work of female division.

66. O'Brien, p. 88.

67. See Margaret Tennant, Paupers and Providers: charitable aid in New Zealand (Wellington, 1989).

68. New Zealand Police Gazette, 1876-1926; New Zealand Herald, 1900-1926; Otago Daily Times, 1876-1900; J. M. A. Tuck, "The Devil's Half-Acre: 1900-1920," B.A. (Hons.) research essay (Otago University, 1983).

69. Erik Olssen, "Women, Work and Family: 1880-1926," in Phillida Bunkle and Beryl Hughes, eds., Women in New Zealand Society (Auckland, 1980), p. 161.

70. Charlotte Macdonald, A Woman of Good Character. Single Women as Immigrant Settlers in Nineteenth-century New Zealand (Wellington, 1990), p. 184.

71. Michael Ignatieff, "Total Institutions and Working Classes: A Review Essay," History Workshop Journal 15 (1983): 169.

72. Ibid.

73. Ibid., p. 170.
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Author:Dalley, Bronwyn
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Date:Dec 22, 1993
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