Friendship and betrayal are central themes in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, which takes place in a women’s prison where the environment is a lot like an all-women’s college. The female prisoners, the show suggests, are “just like us,” worried about interpersonal relationships as much as they are about survival. But the show seems to rely too much on stereotypes about women living in close quarters—that they’re concerned with appearance, catty, and often manipulative. At the same time, OITNB gives a woman’s version of the prison narrative, a genre that has its roots in social protest, and the show, along with the author of the titular book, Piper Kerman, uses the soap-opera format to persuade viewers that reforms are needed because we certainly wouldn’t want to live as the characters do in the show. We are implicated because of the familiarity.

Perhaps the show struck such a popular cord because the mass incarceration of women is a relatively new phenomenon. According to The Sentencing Project, the number of women in prison rose 646 percent between 1980 and 2010, 1.5 times the rate of men over the same period. The same report notes that these women differ from their male counterparts: women tend to be convicted for nonviolent offenses. Women are much more likely to be the primary caretakers of children as well as victims of sexual abuse before and during incarceration. While the debate over women’s experiences of incarceration appears contemporary, this question is embedded in old debates about femininity and the causes of women’s “criminal” behavior. These gendered assumptions about what the model woman inmate should be have caused both substandard conditions and a greater emphasis on rehabilitation over punishment.

Since the inception of America’s prisons, women were usually confined less often than men for violent crimes but were more often punished for crimes of “moral turpitude”—prostitution, “lewd” behavior, and vagrancy.

During the early 19th century, the paucity of female prisoners meant that most states didn’t have separate female facilities. Before the 1820s, most prisons resembled classrooms where inmates lived in large rooms together like a dormitory. The newer prisons of the era, like New York’s Auburn Prison, shepherded men into individual cells at night and silent labor during the day, a model that would prove enduring. Women at Auburn, however, lived in a small attic room above the kitchen and received food once a day. The conditions were so terrible that a chaplain famously noted, “To be a male convict in this prison would be quite tolerable; but to be a female convict, for any protracted period, would be worse than death.”

In addition to receiving subpar resources and attention, female inmates were actually considered more trouble than men even though their crimes were often less violent. As inspectors of an Illinois prison wrote in their official report from 1845, “[From] past experience, not only in our own State, but in others, one female prisoner is of more trouble than twenty males.” L. Mara Dodge, writing for the Journal of Social History, explains this common attitude derived from the idea that women needed individualized attention: “Because women were viewed as being more pure and moral by nature than men, the woman who dared to stray or fell from her elevated pedestal was regarded as having fallen a greater distance than a male, and hence as being beyond any possibility of reformation.”

As Nicole Hahn Rafter details in her article for Crime and Justice, separate women’s prisons didn’t appear regularly until the 1870s and were focused on making their residents “true” women while men were required to do the more masculine task of manual labor. The women were taught to sew and cook and most were released on parole to work as domestic servants, where it was assumed that the master of the house would take over the charge of ensuring good behavior.

Sex segregation did not necessarily bring about better conditions.

While sex-specific prisons continued to emphasize the virtues of traditional femininity, the conditions of these prisons were abominable. Rafter describes the first women’s prison, New York’s Mount Pleasant Female Prison, which was established in 1835, as an overcrowded and inhumane institution where women were routinely subjected to straitjackets and gagging. It was closed by 1865. In the same vein, a mid-1840s report from an Ohio women’s prison reported that “the women fight, scratch, pull hair, curse, swear and yell, and to bring them to order a keeper has frequently to go among them with a horsewhip.”

The idea that wayward women were morally deficient continued into the 20th century. Miriam Van Waters, writing in 1938, explains the mission of the Reformatory Prison for Women of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as emphasizing work and education for “erring Massachusetts females,” as well as using the attachment between mother and child as a “natural incentive” to change her ways. Other incentives Van Waters touts include hard labor (“It gives meaning to time”) and arts, like music, painting and poetry (“Prisoners…are peculiarly susceptible to emotion and to aesthetic perception…perhaps malnutrition and the adversity suffered in childhood has something to do with it”). Biological conditions were routinely blamed for women’s behaviors, including epilepsy, mental illness, venereal disease, and PTSD symptoms that we would today consider signs of sexual trauma. In analyzing the historical record of arguments made in favor of women’s prisons, Joanne Belknap, writing for The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, wonders, “Could it be that in order to succeed in implementing sex-segregated incarceration, the women reformers had to include sexist programming,” suggesting that perhaps these women were better off in such prisons than they were elsewhere.

Rafter argues that the reformatory movement gained traction in the Northeast and was slow to spread to the West. Over time, she points out, women were convicted of more violent offenses and were separated into rehabilitative institutions and prisons more similar to men’s prisons; race and class frequently served as a factor in determining placement.

In fact, the only women’s prison in the West until the 1960s was the California Institution for Women (CIW), established in 1933 originally as an extension of San Quentin, the oldest California prison.

After a 1952 earthquake, CIW, then the largest women’s prison in the US, moved to Frontera, a feminized version of the word “frontier” meant to symbolize new beginnings, and was rebuilt to be a model of rehabilitation. Consisting of 380 inmates, the location was so rural that there were no fences surrounding the perimeter, and the women lived in small cottages with their own rooms. As detailed in Rosemary Gartner and Candace Kruttschnitt’s article for Law & Society Review, women were called “residents,” not “inmates,” wore street clothes, and were supervised by solely female correctional officers most of whom had some college education and training in social work. The female staff members were as much role models for the residents as they were enforcers. Every inmate under the age of 55 was required to take classes in homemaking. According to their article, even the California Department of Corrections’ own materials emphasized that the women were not held to the same culpability as people able to make a free choice: “Rather they were ‘the rejected, the unwanted, the inadequate, the insecure,’ who ‘have been buffeted by fate.’”

In the 1960s, two UCLA sociologists, David A. Ward and Gene G. Kassebaum, conducted a study of women inmates at CIW, which is detailed in their book Women’s Prison: Sex and Social Structure. They found that, among other things, female correctional officers were reluctant to use force, instead “[reacting] with giggles,” and allowing the few male staff members to do so. In their 1964 study published in Social Problems, Ward and Kassebaum argue that incarceration had a greater impact on women because they did not “come up through the ‘sandlots of crime’ in that they are not as likely as men to have had experience in training schools or reformatories.” Their study emphasized other stereotypical aspects of women, concluding that women were more likely than men to form same-sex romantic attachments in prison (“never less than 50 percent”) because “women require more emotional support.” At the time, women who participated in romantic relationships suffered severe penalties, and Ward and Kassebaum report that some “butch” women were made to change their hairstyle “to a less masculine coiffure” as punishment. (It’s worthwhile to note that during this time, California, like many states, had indeterminate sentencing policies, which meant that inmates might serve vastly different prison sentences for the same crime depending on the inmate’s behavior in prison and willingness to rehabilitate. Engaging in a relationship with a woman often meant that a parole date might be revoked or substantially pushed back.)

Gartner and Kruttschnitt went back to CIW in the 1990s—the height of the “tough on crime” movement—and tried to see if the results of Ward and Kassebaum’s study still held up. Certainly, CIW had changed. The population was twice as large and surrounded by guard towers with armed guards and fencing. Women wore prison uniforms and were now called “inmates,” just like the men. Thanks to the changes in correctional philosophy, the new emphasis was on individual choice and reformation, and, instead of victims of fate, the women were viewed as “generally inadequate, weak, emotionally needy, and dysfunctional.”

They found that women’s experiences of prison were largely the same despite prison policies that imposed similar strictures on both men and women. Women were still less likely to engage in violent overt rebellion and more likely to form close social bonds although the trust in correctional officers, now predominately male, had somewhat evaporated. (CIW still maintains female staff and has, similar to the past, a female warden.) As they state in their conclusion, “Staff and officials in both periods shared the view that their charges were not, on the whole, dangerous or predatory, but disabled and deficient; and that female prisoners’ particular needs required a gender-specific regime. These views reflected and reinforced prisoners’ attitudes toward and relations with each other, which were often distrustful and suspicious, but also intimately affectionate at times.” In other words, women were not viewed as “superpredators” the same way men were. Feminine stereotypes amongst staff prevailed.

As Gartner and Kruttschnitt point out, today’s prison policies largely do not differentiate between men’s and women’s prisons. But, the attention to grooming has not totally vanished: under the California Code of Regulations, which governs today’s prison policies, all inmates are expected to keep their hair “clean, neatly styled, and groomed.” Women (not men) are still permitted to wear earrings and makeup that “blend[s] with or match[es] the natural, non-ruddy skin tone.”

Perhaps the idea that women are different from men necessitates a reevaluation of prison policies as a whole.

Some politicians in Britain have apparently been calling for an abolition of women’s prisons altogether. There are some signs that mass incarceration as it impacts both sexes may be spinning to an end. Liberals and conservatives seem to agree that the cost of maintaining the world’s largest number of inmates is excessive. California voters, as an example, recently passed Proposition 47, which will keep many low-level offenders out of state prison and will likely keep more women out of prison as a result. While acknowledging the statistical differences between men and women, however, the best hope may be that changes in women’s prisons can effect change in all of them.

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Journal of Social History, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Summer, 1999) , pp. 907-930
Oxford University Press
Crime and Justice, Vol. 5 (1983), pp. 129-181
The University of Chicago Press
Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 46, No. 2, History of the Field of Correctional Education (June 1995), pp. 79-82
Correctional Education Association
The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Vol. 100, No. 3, Centennial Symposium: A Century of Criminal Justice (Summer 2010), pp. 1061-1098
Northwestern University
Law & Society Review, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun 2004), pp. 267-304
Wiley on behalf of Law and Society Association
Social Problems, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Autumn, 1964), pp. 159-177
Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for the Study of Social Problems