Academic journal article Texas Journal of Women, Gender, and the Law

Women Confined by Prison Bars and Male Images

Academic journal article Texas Journal of Women, Gender, and the Law

Women Confined by Prison Bars and Male Images

Article excerpt


Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walking of dreams . . . .1

When the man is busy

making niggers

it doesn't matter

whose shade

you are.

If he runs out of one

particular color

he can always switch

to size

and when he's finished

off the big ones

he'll change to sex

which is after all

where it all began.2

Law emanates the illusion that women and men are equal. The illusion dissolves when one observes the treatment of women in U.S. prisons. The prison is an institution where patriarchal structure and state domination are inseparable.3 While criminal and civil rights laws in statutory texts and judicial interpretations appear to reject the male norm of reinstating archaic feminine roles and the reality of commodification, states and the federal government still approve of and empower these patriarchal instruments within the confines of the female prison. The patriarchal structure of the prison also mirrors the society outside the prison walls. As long as our weakest sisters are sexually subordinated, those of us who believe we are "free" remain caged.4 The history and present state of women's prisons teach that actual reform has not come, women are still commodified and forced to adhere to the male created role of femininity, and the state still proudly wields these reprehensible stigmas. Nothing, within or without the prison walls, has actually changed.

This Article will reveal the objective reality underlying the illusion that the treatment of women has changed, both institutionally and socially, since the inception of public punishment. Women's bodies are today, as historically, appropriated and commodified. The prison system today, as historically, attempts to re-engender the female who is believed to have fallen from the male-created image of femininity. Supposed "neutral" law today, as historically, facilitates appropriating and re-engendering the fallen female by creating obstacles for her escape from sexual abuse. Although the ideal of equality permeates modern social discourse, today, as historically, women's equality is a mere illusion, as is exemplified by the prison.

I. Background

Early punishment reflected the dialectic between the societal norm of punishing "depraved females" who did not adhere to their proper domestic roles and the sexualization of these women. Prisons were built upon the ideals of both punishment and reform.5 Although discussion of these ideals saturates modern punishment policy, commodification commenced as soon as central powers began incarcerating women.

A. The Prison Obsession

The public punishment6 of women was the natural extension of private, domestic punishment.7 Female behavior was regulated by both public and private punishment, a form of control purportedly justified by morality.8 When husbands and fathers failed to compel their women to fulfill their appropriate domestic and submissive roles, the state stepped in to reinforce this objective.9 Early female punishment in Western countries focused on imposing proper, disciplined roles on females who fell from the patriarchal ideal of a domesticated and submissive woman.10 The most common female crimes were violations of women's domestic and sexual identities.11 The central or local authorities punished women for prostitution or violations of chastity, decency, or public order.12 These punishments assisted in developing a particular female identity and allowed for the degradation of the female who did not suitably fit within the definition of this identity.

The sexualization of female offenders continued as imprisonment became the principal mode of centralized governmental punishment. "Parramatta," a New South Wales factory set up in 1821 to hold delinquent females, became a marriage mart.13 The governors of the London Bridewell used their prison as a profitable brothel, coercing or beating prisoner women into prostituting themselves. …

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