Hard Time at Tehachapi: California's First Women's Prison.
At the end of the film noir classic The Maltese Falcon (1941) Humphrey Bogart's Sam Spade turns to femme fatale and murderer Mary Astor and says, "Well, if you get a break you'll be out of Tehachapi in twenty years and you can come back to me then. I hope they don't hang you, precious, by the neck." Though most modern day audiences would not recognize the name, California audiences in the 1940s would have instantly understood Bogey's reference. The California Institution for Women, Tehachapi, was the only women's prison in the state of California, a unique creation born out of a contentious political and social debate about gender, law enforcement, and the possibility of reform and rehabilitation for female criminals.
The creation of this institution, and its relatively short lifespan (1933-1952), are the subject of Kathleen A. Cairns' new book, Hard Times at Tehachapi: California's First Women's Prison. Cairns places Tehachapi squarely within the larger historical context of American prison reform. The 19th century had seen a gradual shift in how convicts were treated. The shift was away from incarceration and towards reformation. This new approach was seen as particularly vital for dealing with female prisoners, and revolutionary facilities like the women's reformatory in Framingham, Massachusetts, were soon cropping up across the country. But as late as the 1920s California's female prisoners were housed side by side with men at San Quentin; only in 1925 was ground broken on a separate female wing at the notorious prison. This arrangement lent itself to sexual and other forms of abuse and raised eyebrows among those who expected these women to eventually be rehabilitated and return to society. "Gender stereotypes," Cairns writes, "afforded prison reformers their greatest challenges, but also their greatest op-portunities."(17)
By the early 20th century, with Progressivism on the rise in the state, reform-minded women pushed for a new and separate facility. Not only would it be unique in the state for its approach to incarceration, but it was also designed to function largely independent of men. Clubwomen and professional prison reformers combined forces to lobby for the creation of "a kinder, gentler sort of prison," one that would "instill [in inmates] the ability and desire to succeed in domestic pursuits--marriage and family--reflecting what society at large expected of virtually all women of the time."(2, 127) Managing such a facility was an uphill battle, however, one that required the passage of a state constitutional amendment (Proposition 21 in 1936) to move control of the new California Institution for Women from the jurisdiction of San Quentin and into the hands of Tehachapi's own board of trustees.
In her introduction Cairns points out that many records from the California Institution for Women were lost in the aftermath of the 1952 Tehachapi earthquake. But she nonetheless is able to reconstruct not only basic statistics about the inmate population but also the lives of a handful of inmates, including forger and convicted murderer Hazel Glab and Communist Party member and union organizer Caroline Decker. It is interesting to note that because the California Institution for Women, unlike many women's prisons in other states, housed felons, it thus was integrated from its very beginning. (Housing, however, was still segregated by race). Cairns documents the grind of day-to-day life in Tehachapi. It may not have been San Quentin, but as Cairns points out, boredom, loneliness, and the ever-present wind combined to take a toll on the emotional, psychological, and physical health of both inmates and employees.
Perhaps the most valuable part of his book deals with the personality clashes among the women who lobbied for and/or were in charge of the facility. Certainly, as Cairns points out, "ambitious, educated women, mostly white and middle class themselves, saw promise" in Progressive-era reform. (3) But this does not mean women always agreed on how to carry out those reforms. While many earlier works on women reformers during the Progressive era suggest that they marched in lockstep towards common goals Cairns paints a convincing picture of fragile egos, turf battles, and clashes with male authorities that ultimately helped doom the very facility these women had helped create. Clubwoman Rose Wallace was crucial to the creation and operation of Tehachapi and yet often ran afoul of both male politicians and other clubwomen, most notably over the firing of superintendent Florence Monahan in 1939. At Tehachapi, Cairns argues, "women came together on behalf of a single cause. Once they achieved their goal, their fragile coalition began to fall apart." (6)
The book ends with a recounting of California's post World War II shift from reformation to large scale incarceration. In 1944 Gov. Earl Warren reorganized the state prison system, a reform which also called for the relocation of the women's prison. After the 1952 earthquake, the Tehachapi site became the new home of an-all male facility; the women's facility moved to Corona and became known as the California Institution for Women, Corona. In today's California state women's prisons there is no trace of the Tehachapi approach. Treatment of male and female prisoners is more alike than it is different, the result, Cairns argues, of decades of "get tough on crime" rhetoric. This portion of the book feels a bit rushed, and the readers is left wanting to know more details about how this change in policy evolved over time and the impact it has had on both female prisoners and on larger society.
Eminently readable, and at times gripping, Hard Times at Tehachapi provides valuable insight into an almost forgotten period in the Golden State when there still seemed to be hope that, given the right treatment, even the most hardened of criminals could eventually reform and become a contributing member of society.
Eileen V. Wallis
California State Polytechnic University Pomona
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|Author:||Wallis, Eileen V.|
|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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