Female Prisoners, Aftercare and Release: Residential Provision and Support in Late Nineteenth-Century England

By Turner, Jo; Johnston, Helen | British Journal of Community Justice, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Female Prisoners, Aftercare and Release: Residential Provision and Support in Late Nineteenth-Century England


Turner, Jo, Johnston, Helen, British Journal of Community Justice


This article examines the release and aftercare of female prisoners in England during the late nineteenth century. Primarily it seeks to illuminate the use of residential provision for women who had been released from both convict and local prisons, contrasting the two systems and suggesting how such institutions may have affected the women's subsequent offending. During this period there were two systems of imprisonment; local prisons held prisoners sentenced to periods of up to two years and the convict prison system held those sentenced to penal servitude for which the minimum term was between three and five years. Offenders were sent to either a local or a convict prison, based on the severity of their offence, less serious offenders to local prisons that were maintained by local authorities (until 1878 when they were centralised) and those who committed more serious offences, that warranted a long term prison sentence, known as penal servitude, to a convict prison. All of the convict prisons, for both women and men were built in London and the South of England, and those under such a sentence, were sent to this government run system, from all parts of the country. The research presented here draws on two sets of data, the material on local prisons uses a case study of female prisoners at Stafford prison (Turner, 2009, 2011) and the convict prison data draw on the licensing and release of female convicts collated for a recent ESRC funding project on the costs of imprisonment (Johnston & Godfrey, 2013a). Whilst there is a small body of research on the imprisonment of women in the late nineteenth century (Rafter, 1983; Dobash et al., 1986; Zedner, 1991), little has been written about any aftercare that they received on leaving prison or on the use of refuges for those on licence. This article outlines and reflects upon such provision, during a period when a woman released from prison was regarded as 'the most hopeless creature in the world' (Reverend William Morrison, cited in Gladstone Committee Report, 1895).

Women and crime in the nineteenth century

In the nineteenth century, women were a minority of those prosecuted by the courts; they made up about 20 to 25 per cent of those prosecuted and they were overrepresented in certain offence categories, these were; thefts and offences under the Pawnbroker's Acts; drunk and disorderly; lower level assaults and public disorder; offences relating to prostitution. There were concerns about women committing offences like poisoning, baby farming and infanticide though they overwhelmingly committed less serious offences (Zedner, 1991; D'Cruze & Jackson, 2009; Godfrey et al., 2005). When it came to more serious or indictable offences women's participation was similar, though it had declined from 27 per cent in 1857 to 19 per cent in 1890. However, in the latter decades of the century, women outnumbered men when it came to recidivism; there were more female 'hardened habitual offenders' with more than 10 previous convictions than male offenders (Zedner, 1991; Turner, 2011, 2012). The behaviour of 'deviant' or criminal women at this time was set against the Victorian constructions of femininity and womanhood; women were wives and mothers, they were to be pure, submissive and modest, caring for their families and children and managing the home. Women who broke the law were judged against these values as well as against the law; they were doubly-deviant (Zedner, 1991; Heidensohn, 1985). The role of carcéral institutions was to return 'deviant', criminal or 'fallen' women to appropriate femininity and womanhood, through institutional support that was based on domesticity, religion, examples of virtue and propriety as well as discipline and regulation (Dobash et al., 1986; Sim, 1990; Zedner, 1991; Johnston, 2015).

Women in local prisons

For those women sentenced to imprisonment by the courts, the most common experience was a short sentence in a local prison, usually just a few days or weeks for petty offences. …

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