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Women's imprisonment in the United States: a historical analysis of female offenders through the early 20th century.

In the mid-1970s, I was escorted on a tour of a "school for girls" by one of the residents. Eventually, I asked my guide why she was there. "Promiscuity," she replied. A few years later, I was in another "special school for girls" in the People's Republic of china when five residents were directed to "confess" to us foreign visitors. One after the other the translator repeated their stories of disobedience to parents and having boyfriends their parents did not like. Twenty years ago, females were incarcerated for what can only be termed female status offenses - acts or conditions prohibited or enforced only for females. And while women are no longer incarcerated for such "crimes" in the United States today, the knowledge that they once were underscores the importance of examining differences in the treatment of women throughout history.

Recent social histories of punishment stand in rather stark contrast to earlier and more anecdotal accounts. They challenge the "march of progress" theme common to many earlier histories of the use of confinement that portrayed developments in penology as following a rather continuous line of improvements marshaled by humanitarian and idealistic administrators and reformers. Though acknowledging the benevolent intentions at work, recent accounts give more focus to the reality of what the reformers actually achieved. They also illuminate the important roles played in the evolution of punishment practices by broader social, economic, political and ideological forces and interests.

It is against this broader background that new and richer understandings of views about female criminality and the history of women's treatment in the penal system have emerged. It is now clear that differences in treatment between women and men within the judicial and correctional systems often have harmed rather than helped women. In addition, evidence continues to grow of ways in which women's experiences have been tied to their race and class, as well as the part of the country in which they lived and other personal characteristics. Review of these differences over time illuminates the role played by gender-linked attitudes and expectations in determining treatment within the criminal justice process, a type of analysis that still is needed today.

Incarceration of Women

Most states established central prisons for felons soon after the concept was born in the early 19th century. The earliest confinement facilities resembled large houses, and initially women were held in one or more rooms of their own. After 1820, states began to construct penitentiaries. This development took place most rapidly and on the largest scale in the Northeast, but imposing central prisons also were constructed in other regions throughout the 1800s.

Almost from the beginning, women were confined in penitentiaries, much as men were. In the early days, women were assigned to separate cells, a small wing, or another room or space set aside for them within the men's units. In some instances, however, women actually were held in the same cells or confinement areas as men. As the numbers of confined women grew, separate buildings next to or near the quarters for men were added for women. Later, many states moved women to facilities down the road or across the street from male penitentiaries.

The public policy debates that occurred as penitentiaries were being developed centered on the best regimens for instilling discipline and promoting reformation, as well as the best architectural forms for advancing those aims. Although a range of economic and political interests helped shape the penal policies that were adopted, considerable public attention was given to arguments on the best means of insulating offenders from the corrupting influences not only of the social environment from which they had come, but also of other inmates.

The Pennsylvania system of penal discipline - exemplified by the Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in 1829 in Philadelphia - emphasized complete separation of inmates from one another. Cells were designed to hold only one person, and each inmate ate, slept, worked, exercised and did everything else within the confines of a single cell and, at least initially, an attached individual outdoor exercise area. The hope was that, left on their own with a Bible, inmates would reflect on their sins and become penitent.

The New York system - epitomized by the Auburn State Prison, which opened in 1817 - engaged inmates in work in large rooms or shops during the day, but placed them in separate cells at night. To avoid contamination in the face of congregate work and movement, the Auburn system imposed lockstep marching, a prohibition on inmate communication, and harsh punishments for rule infractions.

Because of its around-the-clock reliance on large, individual cells designed to prevent communication among inmates, women could be held in Eastern State Penitentiary without special consideration or different treatment. Women were admitted to Auburn beginning in 1825, but they were not held in individual cells or included in the workshops. Instead, they were placed in a third-floor attic above the penitentiary's kitchen, where, at least for a time, they were not under continuous supervision. In such conditions, it was impossible to enforce a rule of silence or the other means of discipline to which the men at Auburn were subject. Yet, there was not really any competing philosophy on how women incarcerated in 19th-century prisons ought to be treated. At Auburn and other prisons where women were held, only halfhearted and sporadic attempts were made to impose the disciplinary scheme developed for men. More frequently, the women experienced neglect and the turning of a blind eye to what went on in the women's section.

But scandal associated with a pregnancy and a beating in the Auburn women's area, as well as an increase in the number of commitments of women offenders, led New York to establish a separate facility for women, the Mount Pleasant Female Prison, in 1835. This was the first separate prison for women in the United States, but it remained the only such prison until the 1870s. In 1865, the population at Mount Pleasant reached nearly twice its capacity. Unwilling to finance further expansion, the state instead closed the prison, dispersing the women inmates to local jails.

Criminality and Morality

Women were incarcerated in men's prisons into the early years of the 20th century. This penal practice started later in the South and the West than in the Northeast and the Midwest, but it occurred in virtually every state and region of the country. Despite the regularity with which women were committed to male institutions, however, the phenomenon continued to be treated as an anomaly for which the receiving institutions could hardly have been expected to make appropriate preparations.

Conditions were harsh in 18th-century prisons for both men and women. Both sexes suffered unfit housing and an almost total lack of privacy, which extended even to the use of toilet and bathing facilities. Discrimination on the basis of race also was a brutal fact of life, and this applied to both men and women. However, women bore extra burdens in male penitentiaries and women of color suffered even more. Neither the prisons nor the penal regimes were designed for women. Rather, women were forced into the accommodations and the disciplinary and work plans devised for men. Women also were greatly outnumbered by men, which both reinforced the idea of the women's unimportance and made them more vulnerable to the dominant group.

Accounting for women's treatment in the penal system in the 1800s requires some understanding of prevailing views about women's criminality. Views about women in general reflected somewhat paradoxical ideas. Women were seen as pure, honest and innocent on the one hand, and as deceitful, designing and susceptible to corruption on the other. As Lucia Zedner wrote in Women, Crime and Penal Responses, 19th-century explanations of women's criminality were rooted not simply in the general framework of Victorian morality, but even more deeply in the social construct of ideal womanhood.

Men who engaged in crime arguably were reflecting appropriate male traits, such as entrepreneurial drive, initiative and physical ability. Female offenders, however, were seen as repudiating honored attributes of femininity. Thus, women offenders not only acted contrary to the law, but also contrary to their ascribed social and moral roles. Further, the seriousness of women's crimes was gauged not so much in terms of any objective standard of harm caused as by the distance of the acts from behavior consistent with the feminine ideal. Hence, the danger posed by women offenders was less physical or economic than moral. While male offenders also were viewed as immoral, women who committed exactly the same acts were seen as nothing short of utterly depraved, so far were they from proper feminine behavior.

Racist ideas also permeated the penal system and were powerful influences in sentencing, placement and general treatment. African-American women were popularly viewed as more masculine, violent, aggressive, dominating, physically powerful, sexually loose and immoral than their Caucasian counterparts. Thus, they also were easily viewed as fitting the stereotype of women offenders that developed by the end of the century as more "masculine" than "normal" females.

Treatment of Female Offenders

One way to appreciate the extent to which women who committed crimes were devalued is to consider how far their treatment departed from prevailing notions of what was right and proper in the treatment of women in general. For example, in the 1860s, men and women inmates in Arkansas shared cells and common waste buckets. But women also had to cope with menstruation, the possibility of becoming pregnant, and often, the reality of pregnancy and childbirth. In 1874, women and men slept in the same bunkhouses at the Huntsville penitentiary in Texas. Women held there, the majority of whom were African American, roamed the yard tending to infant children conceived and born in the penitentiary.

Women held in male prisons lived with the constant threat of physical abuse at the hands of male staff and inmates. In a cruel twist to modern ideas about equal treatment, women inmates often endured the same disciplinary measures as men. An 1891 survey of authorized prison punishments reported such harsh penalties as unlimited days in a dark cell, whipping, use of the ball and chain, use of the bat, handcuffing to the wall with the inmate raised off the floor, and half-shaving of the head. In other cases, women were subjected to penalties and control measures devised specifically for them. An investigation into punishments at the Kansas State Penitentiary showed that as late as 1910, correctional officers routinely used straitjackets, handcuffs and gags as punishment for female inmates.

Heavily influenced by the belief that idle hands were "the devil's workshop," as well as pressures to minimize the costs of penitentiary operations, 19th-century prison administrators organized their institutions around work. Once again, however, this emphasis played out differently for women than men. Most women performed domestic chores inside the prison or in private homes. They did sewing and mending, tended gardens, cooked, cleaned and washed laundry.

In some states, women were employed in manufacturing operations built on domestic skills. In the early 1900s in Missouri, for example, women labored 50 hours a week making overalls and jackets for a private contractor. Although some women were subjected to working in the fields, building railroads and engaging in other harsh physical labor alongside men, other women were left idle. Inactivity often contributed to the sexual vulnerability of female inmates.

Many women in men's penitentiaries had both assigned and unassigned work, and for the latter they were put to work in sexual service for both correctional officers and male inmates. In 1890, for example, a 21-year-old woman was assigned to an open-thatched shack in the prison yard of the Arizona Territorial Prison, which had no facilities for women. Made available for sexual purposes, she soon had a baby and became pregnant a second time before being granted a pardon on the condition that she leave the Arizona Territory. In Louisiana in the 1880s, African-American women inmates worked as field hands and as servants to the family of the man who held an exclusive state lease contract that gave him control over more than 15,000 inmates. This contractor at times sent the women into the camp areas to provide sexual services to the male inmates.

The treatment of women in prison represented a radical departure from ordinary standards of propriety. Being convicted of a crime somehow placed a woman outside the bounds of "acceptable" society. Prevailing ideas about women's nature and proper roles were powerful influences in how women were treated and in how such treatment was justified. Thus, much of what women have suffered in the penal system has its roots in gender definitions, perceptions and biases.

The Women's Reformatory

Until about 1870, penitentiaries and other custodial institutions were the only types of penal units for women. These types of facilities followed a masculine model, derived from men's prisons, with high-security architecture, a male-dominated authority structure, and programs that stressed hard labor and harsh discipline. During the period after the Civil War and up until about 1935, most states continued to confine at least some women in institutions operated on a custodial model.

Custodial units for women were of several types, including those connected to prisons for men (the most common arrangement), prison farm camps (which existed mainly in the South, where women worked alongside men), and completely independent custodial prisons for women. During that same time period, however, a movement began that promoted the establishment of a new type of institution - the women's reformatory.

Reformatories for women represented a significant change in both ideology and practice governing women's treatment in the penal system. Reformatories for young males also were developed in the late 1860s, but they did not go as far as women's reformatories in challenging the assumptions, design features and operating principles characteristic of custodial facilities. However, Zebulon Brockway, who served as the guiding force behind the Elmira, N.Y., Reformatory for Males, directed a program in Detroit in the late 1860s that previewed what would become many of the distinguishing features of women's reformatories. These included indeterminate sentencing and parole; a model of maternal care by older, respectable matrons; an emphasis on reformation to result from religious uplift; acquisition of domestic skills and academic improvement; and the ability to confine women guilty of moral offenses for extended terms.

The first entirely independent, female-staffed women's prison opened in Indiana in 1873. Although it was called a reformatory institution, this facility was intended to hold serious adult felony offenders as well as delinquent girls, and in other ways, it also failed to live up to the reformatory ideal. Three additional independent institutions for women were established before the turn of the century. As Nicole Hahn Rafter has described so vividly, the Western House of Refuge, which opened in 1893 in Albion, N.Y. epitomized efforts on the part of middle- and upper-middle class women to help rescue "poor unfortunates" and "save 'fallen women.'"

Rafter argues that reformatories were intended to serve two primary functions: sexual and vocational regulation of young, working-class women. Sexual regulation was to be attained through several means. The intended reformatory population was to consist of young, single, working-class women who had been adjudicated on minor offenses, typically involving sexual or related misbehaviors. Early intervention was to be employed to redirect these wayward souls toward the path of true womanhood, which lay in the direction not only of faithful domestic service, but also of sexual chastity until marriage and fidelity thereafter. Otherwise, those who were to be rescued almost certainly were doomed to a life of decadence and dissolution.

Parole practices also were used to help supervise women's sexual behavior. Paroles generally involved placements in area residences, where the women could demonstrate their newly acquired domestic skills. The decent families with whom they were placed were encouraged not only to monitor the quality of their work but also to supervise the propriety of their behavior in general. Parole revocation for violation of strictures on sexual behavior was common.

Women's reformatories also were designed to provide both the vocational training and the habits and understanding necessary for young women to assume their rightful position in society. The aim was to prepare the residents to be dutiful wives, mothers and educators of children. If, for one reason or another, a woman continued to lack a proper husband to support her, she also would be well-prepared for work in domestic service. in either case, a program designed to train the women in homemaking and other domestic skills was to be at the center of reformative efforts.

For the most part, the "offenses" that led to reformatory sentences were ones for which men almost never were prosecuted. Most commitments were for public order offenses (e.g., public intoxication, waywardness, vagrancy) or minor property crimes. In reality, most reformatory inmates actually were confined because of sexual behavior (e.g., "prostitution" or merely being sexually active) or other behaviors considered improper (e.g., smoking or frequenting dance halls). They also were the kinds of misbehavior which, in the years before the creation of reformatories, would not have led to incarceration. Thus, the opening of reformatories for women represented a dramatic expansion in the ability to exercise state control over women's behavior.

It also appears that the development of reformatories for women resulted in a new bifurcation of the system of confinement in many jurisdictions. Black women continued to be committed disproportionately to custodial settings, while higher proportions of white women were sent to reformatories. Available data suggest that the population of women who reached reformatories was heavily white.

Although such two-track commitment practices clearly reflected racial biases and were racially discriminatory, Rafter has suggested that the supposed benefits of being sent to a reformatory were counterbalanced in practice by a number of heavy disadvantages associated with such a commitment. Those sent to reformatories found themselves in settings that certainly were less imposing and more comfortable than those in custodial facilities, but these same women were unlikely to have been committed to a state institution of any sort prior to the establishment of reformatories. Their crimes simply were not of a type or seriousness typically viewed as warranting custodial confinement.

Similarly, reformatories, unlike custodial institutions, reflected a strong commitment to rehabilitative over strictly retributive aims. This has been widely cited as an advantage of a reformatory commitment, inasmuch as reformatory residents would have the benefit of education, training and other services unavailable in more traditional penal settings. Yet the product sought from the reformatory regime was a woman fitting a very narrow conception of successful reformation. In fact, many of the women who the reformers hoped to convert would be unlikely either to achieve or to knowingly embrace the reformers' visions for them. Thus, it is likely that many women would regard the prospect of undergoing relentless efforts to compel them to conform to an ill-fitting definition of proper womanhood as more of a burden than a benefit.

Decline of the Reformatory

Seventeen states opened women's reformatories between 1900 and 1935. Although there was considerable variation among the states and regions of the country, reformatories opened after the turn of the century typically were characterized by greater professionalism on the part of their superintendents and a heightened emphasis on medical matters, especially diagnosis and treatment of venereal diseases. Over time, however, there was a dilution of the ideas and features that had marked the initial dreams for the reformatory with a reinfusion of a heavy custodial emphasis. Nonetheless, most of the physical structures erected during the reformatory era remain in use. Thus, the form of the reformatory - often considerably expanded and augmented by additional construction of a more traditional, custodial nature - continues to exist and to shape popular imagery about the nature of women's incarceration. Similarly, many terms, rules and practices developed as part of the reformatory ideal can still be found within women's institutions today. In many cases, clear decisions have not been made as to which parts of the historic legacy should be claimed and which should be rejected.

There are many lessons to be learned through the history of how women have been treated within the correctional system in the United States. It is in good currency today to advocate gender-specific programming. Certainly, it is inconceivable that we might return to practices common in the penitentiary era in which women were treated much like men, there being no plans or programs dedicated specifically to their effective care.

Yet just as certainly, major pitfalls loom in efforts to specify the reasons why, and the ways in which, women should be treated differently from men. Reflection on the ways in which women's reformatories were conceived and operated makes that painfully clear.


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Butler, Anne M. 1997. Gendered justice in the American West: Women prisoners in men's penitentiaries. Chicago and Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press.

Collins, Catherine Fisher. 1997. The imprisonment of African-American women: Causes, conditions and future implications. Jefferson, N.C., and London: McFarland & Co. Inc.

Dodge, Mara. 1996. Doing time at the Joliet Women's Prison, 1896-1933. Paper on file.

Dodge, Mara. 1996. Domesticating Wayward Women at the Illinois State Reformatory for Women, 1930-1970. Slideshow presentation made at the American Society of Criminology, Nov. 23, 1996, Chicago.

Faith, Karlene. 1993. Unruly women: The politics of confinement and resistance. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers.

Freedman, Estelle B. 1981. Their sisters' keepers: Women's prison reform in America, 1830-1930. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lekkerkerker, Eugenia. 1931. Reformatories for women in the United States. Groningen, Netherlands: J.B. Wolters.

Messerschmidt, James. 1987. Feminism, criminology and the rise of the female sex delinquent. In Gender, Crime and Feminism, ed. Ngaire Naffine, 1995. Aldershot, England: Dartmouth Publishing Co.

Pisciotta, Alexander W. 1994. Benevolent repression: Social control and the American reformatory-prison movement. New York and London: New York University Press.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn. 1995. Partial justice: Women, prisons and social control. Transaction Publishers.

Watterson, Kathryn. 1996. Women in prison: Inside the concrete womb. (Revised edition). Northeastern University Press.

Zedner, Lucia. 1995. 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, 329-361. New York and Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Zedner, Lucia. 1991. Women, crime, and penal responses: A historical account. In Crime and justice: A review of research, ed. Michael Tonry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

M. Kay Harris is chair and associate professor of the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University.
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Title Annotation:Female Offenders
Author:Harris, M. Kay
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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