Women's Imprisonment in the United States: A Historical Analysis of Female Offenders through the Early 20th Century

By Harris, M. Kay | Corrections Today, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Women's Imprisonment in the United States: A Historical Analysis of Female Offenders through the Early 20th Century


Harris, M. Kay, Corrections Today


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. …

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