Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Following the Rules? Women's Responses to Incarceration, New Zealand, 1880-1920

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Following the Rules? Women's Responses to Incarceration, New Zealand, 1880-1920

Article excerpt

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. …

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