A Brief History of Doing Time: The California Institution for Women in the 1960s and the 1990s

Article excerpt

Recent scholarship on penality describes profound changes in the ideology, discourses, and policies shaping criminal punishment in the late-twentieth-century United States. To assess the implications of these changes for those subject to criminal punishment, we examine the experiences of women in prison at two key points in the recent history of penality. We compare how imprisonment was practiced and responded to at the California Institution for Women in the early 1960s, when the rehabilitative model dominated official penal discourse, and in the mid-1990s, near the height of the "get tough" era. We find that the ways in which women related and responded to other prisoners, to staff, and to the prison regime, while in some ways specific to one or the other penal era, did not fundamentally change. Thus, penal regimes ostensibly informed by profoundly different rationalities nevertheless structured the daily lives of prisoners through a very similar set of deprivations, restrictions, and assumptions.

Introduction

Punishment changed in the United States in the last third of the twentieth century. The indicators of this change are welldocumented and widely agreed upon. Prison populations soared, correctional and rehabilitative goals were largely supplanted in official and popular discourse by concerns with public safety and victims' rights, penal policy became highly politicized, and public sentiment toward criminals hardened. As a consequence, criminal punishment touched the lives of more Americans than ever before in the 1990s, a decade characterized by "mass imprisonment" (Garland 2001), "hyper-incarceration" (Simon 2000), and a "macho penal economy" (Downes 2001). Commentators continue to debate the broader meanings and sources of these changes. For some they signal the rise of a postmodern or "new penology" rooted in neoliberalism and distinguished by "an abandonment of any pretext of benevolence" (Pratt 2000:133). Others see not an overarching, novel trend, but disparate efforts to recombine timeworn practices in the face of the disintegration of the welfare state (Garland 1995), or an incoherent and contradictory penality driven by New Right politics that favors both the innovative and the nostalgic (O'Malley 1999).

Implicit in many of these analyses is the assumption that shifts in penal ideologies, discourses, and logics have consequences for prisoners' lives. Recently, Simon articulated this assumption when he asked, "[h]ow has inmate society changed under conditions where prisons' populations have experienced extraordinary growth and prison management has undergone a wholesale rearrangement of mission and ideology?" (2000:302). In this article, we address this question by examining the experiences of women in prison at two key points in the recent history of criminal punishment. We compare how imprisonment was practiced and responded to at the California Institution for Women (CIW) in the early 1960s, when the rehabilitative model dominated official penal discourse, and in the mid-1990s, near the height of the "get tough" era. The gendered maternal and therapeutic approaches that gave women's corrections a certain coherence and distinctiveness for much of the twentieth century contrast sharply with both the punitive, pessimistic penal ideologies of the 1990s and the move to standardize and systematize penal practices. Have the ways women manage their lives in prison changed as prisons have moved toward gender-equity and a "penality of cruelty" (Simon 2001)? Convicted offenders, as Garland has noted, "form the most immediate audience for the practical rhetoric of punishment, being directly implicated within its practices and being the ostensible target of its persuasive attempts" (1990:262). Our goal is to shed light on the extent to which changes in the official discourses, ideology, and practices of penality have altered how imprisonment was experienced by women offenders, one segment of this "most immediate audience. …