Inhumane System of Incarceration in U.S. Poses Special Danger to WomenRoundup
tags: prisons, womens history, Mass Incarceration
Jessica L. Adler is an assistant professor of history and health policy & management at Florida International University and author of Burdens of War: Creating the United States Veterans Health System.
Last week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) announced his intention to close the state’s women’s prison, Edna Mahan Correctional Facility, as a means of “completely breaking [a] pattern of misconduct.” Murphy reported being “deeply disturbed and disgusted” by an April 2020 Justice Department report citing a “pervasive culture” of violence and sexual abuse in the institution.
Headlines referred to the findings as “shocking,” but they actually echo centuries of accounts of abuse and neglect endured by women in U.S. prisons, as well as more recent reports of mistreatment. While the closure of Edna Mahan may stop cruelty at one facility, it is an incomplete solution to a deeper and widespread problem: The United States’ jarringly inhumane system of incarceration poses unique dangers to women.
That has remained true throughout U.S. history, though prison conditions have varied by period, region and other factors. Reports of physical and sexual abuse in 19th-century penitentiaries were rife, as were tales of extreme neglect. In western New York, in the mid-1820s, women were placed in an attic above the kitchen of the new state prison. Aside from being visited by a steward who brought food and removed waste once per day, they were largely abandoned.
In the South, women in prison camps undertook forced labor — building roads, tending crops — alongside their male counterparts. Under a system that supported both white supremacy and the Southern economy, all incarcerated people faced threats of corporal punishment and abuse. But, as detailed by Talitha LeFlouria, Black women in particular were “subjected to fiendish acts of physical cruelty, often of a sexualized nature, and raped with impunity.”
At the turn of the 20th century, reformers who voiced concerns that prevailing prison conditions undercut public safety and democratic ideals pushed state governments, mainly in the Northeast, to construct all-female reformatories focused on rehabilitation rather than just punishment. Results of prison-based agricultural and domestic education programs at facilities like Edna Mahan — founded in 1913 as Clinton Farms — would be, they imagined, “shown in many happy homes, many clean and upright lives, many parasites turned into producers,” as the Clinton Farms 1917 annual report put it.
Only some were deemed worthy of such high hopes, however. Women’s prisons, like others, were segregated and racialized, and White women had the most extensive access to reformatory-style programs.
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