The "Agency of Women" - Women and ACA

By Morton, Joann B. | Corrections Today, August 1995 | Go to article overview

The "Agency of Women" - Women and ACA


Morton, Joann B., Corrections Today


Twenty-one women attended the first National Prison Association conference in 1870 (Hawkes 1994). A faded photograph of attendees shows them standing straight and tall, a sense of purpose and dedication reflected in their faces. It was not easy for women in the 1870s to take an active role in society, so imagine the courage it took for one of the women, Mrs. E. D. Stewart of Ohio, to stand before the 237 distinguished delegates and say that she "wished to have some unequivocal expression from the congress in reference to engaging women in this reform work" (Wines 1871). Following her lead, men from several states rose to support a resolution to address the value of women's work, particularly with reformation of male inmates. Mr. Wardwell of Rhode Island went so far as to say that he felt he "could lose his right arm, if need be, in defense of the work of women in prisons" (Wines 1871).

When the 1870 Declaration of Principles was adopted, the final principle read: "This Congress is of the opinion in that, both in the official administration of such a [prison] system and in the voluntary cooperation of citizens therein, the agency of women may be employed with excellent effect" (Wines 1871).

Thus began the long and sometimes turbulent relationship between women and the organization now known as the American Correctional Association (ACA).

It may be difficult for some to realize that there was a time when women were almost systematically excluded from active participation in ACA and were denied leadership and line positions throughout adult and juvenile corrections. That this is no longer the case is a tribute to the strong, insightful women and men who, over the past 125 years, have struggled to ensure the Association truly adhered to the Declaration of Principles in all of its activities.

Women and Reform, 1870-1939

Beginning with Elizabeth Gurney Fry, an English Quaker who, in the early 1800s, established a program in London of lay visitors who aided and comforted female inmates, women have had a strong influence in prison reform movements around the world. Early reformers in the United States focused on the abysmal conditions and inhumane treatment prisoners received in state prisons and local jails across the nation. Whipping, beating, starving and chaining inmates of both sexes was commonplace. Filth, crowding, lack of sanitation and limited, if any, medical care contributed to jail fever and other sicknesses that decimated offender populations and, in some instances, staff as well.

Female inmates were considered depraved and fallen women beyond any hope of redemption and were housed with men in degrading, demoralizing conditions. The children who came to prison with them and the infants born to them while they were in prison often perished with their mothers in the dark bowels of the early institutions. In Their Sisters' Keepers: Women's Prison Reform in America 18301930, Estelle Freedman quoted an 1845 New York Prison Association report in which it was suggested that: "It is a matter of great doubt whether it would not be better for an innocent female to be consigned at once to a brothel . . . [where] she would at least enjoy the advantage of being able to fly from the approach of corruption at her pleasure."

In 1878, the same association found only five of 50 jails had regulations for the mandatory separation of women and children from male offenders. A subsequent year-long campaign to bring more jails into compliance with separation guidelines was unsuccessful (McKelvey 1936). With these descriptions in mind one might wonder why the educated, middle and upper class women who became involved in the reform movement chose the often heart-wrenching job of trying to change jails, prisons and their inhabitants.

As the nation prospered after the Revolutionary War and became more industrialized, opportunities expanded for men to receive an education, find work in one of the growing number of occupations associated with an urban economy and participate in the political life of the new country. …

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