Women Like Myself


     Forgotten? No, just disregarded. In a world where men dominate every aspect of life, why should a whole other world behind bars be any different? We are women, we bear their children. We are their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, aunts, even grandmothers, yet we are treated as if we are far from equal and denied the privileges that they are so easily granted.  So why, even when our freedom has been taken, do men behind bars still have more? By the end of reading this paper, maybe these questions will remain unanswered. Then again, maybe, just maybe it will ignite a passion in you, as researching this subject has done for me.

     There we were participating in a class entitled Women's Studies, so should it surprise me that there were any men in the class at all, much less two? It was the first time an Inside/Outside Prison Exchange Program was being given inside of Northampton County Prison's walls. The class consisted of twelve Lafayette College students, who actually were attending toward earning their credits, and twelve female inmates. The college students were given clearance to come in once a week to hold class inside of the prison with twelve inmates. The Prison Exchange Program was facilitated by a woman who has inspired me and given me hope for a few years now. A woman who is pushing for more programs for women in her community, women like myself, women in prison. She is making a great deal of progress too, not only with programming, but also by being the only female on the Prison Advisory Board. I feel it is women like Dr. Bonnie Winfield that female inmates need. She encourages and prompts us to think of education and learning as a form of art and believes that educating, as the practice of freedom, is a way of teaching that anyone can learn.

     During one group activity Dr. Winfield instructed to come up with questions that we would like answered by the end of the course. At that point, I became inspired to look into the treatment of women in the criminal justice system. As I dove into the history of women in prison and the influential women who sought to make a difference, I began to wonder why none of their efforts or ideas held any permanency.

     It all began in 1838, when a woman named Elizabeth Fry influenced the opening of Mount
Pleasant, which was the first prison for women in the United States. Even though Mount Pleasant was under the supervision of a female warden, ultimately it was controlled by male administrators. Therefore, windows in the women's building continued to be sealed, just as they were when women were housed in the men's prison. Why? For fear that they would corrupt the male prisoners' morals. Punishments for the women were corporal, frequent and harsh, food was poor and mortality rates, extraordinarily high. In less than five years, inspectors recommended that it be shut down. That was when, out of desperation, a woman by the name of Elizabeth Farnham was hired. She had a vision of prison being a place of reform, education and hope. As a result of reforming women at Mount Pleasant, crime was being reduced. But instead of people being impressed, many became frightened. The outcome? In 1848, Farnham was forced to resign and two years later the prison was shut down for good.

     Then in 1918, during the Progressive Era of prison reform, the Connecticut State Farm and prison for women was opened. It was one of the first women's reformatories in the country where women were housed in cottages with motherly matrons in a family setting, instead of Correctional Officers.

     Next on the scene came a woman in 1932 by the name of Dr. Miriam VanWaters, who took control of the Women's Reformatory at Sherbon. In a letter to her parents she wrote, "Bars off...curtains in...will bring the outside world in. Just three months later, women began leaving the prison sober and in most cases, employed. Between 1932-1935, 97% of the 120 women had remained self-supporting upon release. So then why was it that in January 1949, VanWaters was fired? However, at the age of 70 she chose to fight for her passion and beliefs. Several months later, she succeeded and returned to her mission at MCI-Framingham, which it is known as today. Unfortunately her work was not continued after her departure.

     At Niantic in 1966, the prison was being operated in a similar fashion, imitating the ideas of Miriam VanWaters. At that time only 10% of the "graduates," once paroled, became repeat offenders. Which is why I pose this question...Why was the reform system at that prison, better known as "The Farm," abolished? As Cristina Rathbone wrote in her book  A World Apart, "one step forward, one step backward; two steps forward, two steps back." Once again an era had been brought to an end.

   Now I will fast forward to the year 1992, when a program called The Baker House had begun at none other than The Farm, by a woman named Carol Dunn. A program which not only made progress, but also a significant drop in recidivism rates. Only 23% of the graduates returned to the prison,  compared to the 77% of women who had no substance abuse treatment at all.

     Today women behind bars are being incarcerated mainly for non-violent, drug related offenses and have serious drug problems themselves. As one inmate said, "this isn't a prison for criminals, it's a prison for drug addicts." Women are more likely to use drugs than men, and to use more serious drugs with greater frequency. So why are there more programs for male prisoners than for women? And why is the focus not on rehabilitation and reforming, but instead primarily on punishment?

     In my opinion things are not much different today than they were when it all began. When female convicts were literally and simply herded into airless basements or ignored. Truth be told, I am a "female convict" of today in 2009, herded into an overcrowded, shiny, "new and improved" prison where I get no sunlight, no fresh air, not even a window to see the outside world and definitely no rehabilitation. Here I am, once again disregarded and ignored. 

     So why the monotony of progression and regression over the years, which all began in the 1800's? Could it be due in part to the fact that by the mid 1990's, prison construction has become a multi-billion dollar industry nationwide? An industry dominated by none other than who? Men. At least 75% of women in prisons are mothers. Recent studies have shown that children of inmates are often psychologically traumatized and five to six times more likely to be incarcerated themselves. With that being said, shouldn't the main concern be to break the cycle by forming and establishing more programs that are child-centered, as well as family oriented for women in prison? Shouldn't this country be concerned with reforming, instead of reprimanding, not building more prisons.

     Today we can look back and admire the women pioneers like Elizabeth Fry, Eliza Farnham, Dr. Miriam VanWaters and Carol Dunn, who have broken the mold for us. Maybe we should question why the systems to reform, instead of reprove and punish, are not still in use. Maybe we, being the female inmates or prior inmates who are or have been affected should be provided with more classes, such as Women's Studies, to educate and better inform us. Maybe it should begin with the children of today who will be the adults and citizens of tomorrow. With the prison population increasing, comes the increasing percentage of the children who are currently being affected by their mother being incarcerated now.

     But most importantly, maybe women like myself who find themselves in this viscious cycle of jail life should get more involved. As Dr. Miriam VanWaters said, "Only delinquents can solve the problems of delinquents." In my opinion, we cannot teach what we do not know, nor lead where we do not go. So where does it ever end? I believe it ends where it begins, with the efforts of fellow female inmates, just like myself.

                                                                   By: Lorena Lee Hacker