Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Women's Imprisonment: - a brief history

"He (the Chaplin) spoke to us of the temptation in the wilderness, how that Christ was tempted in the same way that we are, but that He was good and we were bad. He instanced how wrong it would be if, when we were hungry, we yielded to the temptation of stealing bread. At this remark an old women stood up. She was tall and gaunt, her face seamed with life, her hands gnarled and worn with work. One saw that whatever her crimes might have been she had evidently toiled incessantly. At this moment her face wore an expression of stained intensity as though some irresistible tide of inward emotion had forced her to act. The tears streamed down her furrowed cheeks as she said in a pleading, reverent voice, 'Oh, sir, don't be so hard on us.' The wardresses immediately came up to her, took her by the shoulders and hustled her out of the ward; we never saw her again. The Chaplin did not answer nor even look at her, and continued his address as if nothing had happened." Constance Lytton (1914)

Societies have been condemning people deemed a social menace to punishment through caging or other types of entrapment for centuries, predating notions of law and order. But in medieval and early modern times, unless an offence was specifically directed against royalty or a state, it was generally up to the victim or the victim's relatives and friends, to pursue and apprehend the offender. When did retributional punishments carried out by communities or individuals against abuses come to be controlled by the state through a burgeoning myriad of agencies of detection and arrest, judgement, and chastisement? "Crime", a 14th century term, is not an absolute - it is defined by law; certain activities have been selected in the interests of lawmakers as punishable, criminalized and decriminalized as dominant attitudes and beliefs within different societies have changed. The vestiges of the non-judicial resolution of conflicts and injuries within a community can be found well into the 19th century. But gradually we have come to live in a situation in the 'western world' where the State takes away the individual's responsibility and accountability for actions and reactions, and ultimately autonomy, under a system of state run justice which claims to be objective, rational and impartial. The design and establishment of more rigid definitions of crime, and the relative severity with which different crimes should be punished, corresponded with the shift to the criminalization of certain activities previously regarded as rights by peasants, vagrants, the underclass, as capitalist reappraisals in politics came to venerate private property more and more, and also efforts to "eradicate ldleness" by detaining non-productive people in Houses of Correction or Work-Prisons. Imprisonment with forced labour and other forms of penal servitude (such as the galleys) grew increasingly popular from the early 16th century onwards, as attitudes towards idleness and poverty changed and an ever increasing number were sent to prison.

Prisons are so accepted today as a fundamental part of criminal justice, that for many people it is inconceivable how society could ever do without them even though the prison emerged barely 200 years ago as the main way of dealing with offenders. Yet, in the middle ages the prison population was still largely made up of people awaiting trial. Other forms of punishment were much more popular - execution on the scaffold, and other forms of corporal punishment such as mutilation, whipping and branding. These and other public punishments, including symbolic acts of shaming and dishonouring, had a highly ritualistic and theatrical character, a spectacle partly aimed at the deterrence from crime of the assembled public. However, the nature of the penal system of Europe was changing greatly by the mid-18th century, with various forms of incarceration. By the middle of the 19th century most states in Europe and in the US had significantly reduced the number of offences punishable by death, and executions were increasingly moved behind prison walls away from the public gaze. Corporal punishments continued as a disciplinary measure inside the prison walls well into the 20th century.
Prison is part of a larger attempt by the ruling class to discipline and dominate, and to punish the slightest deviation from what it prescribed as normative behaviour. It is thoroughly patriarchal - the rules and regulations, and therefore the definition of crimes are constructed by the patriarchy. For example in situations in which it is ok for a husband to beat up his wife, but that very same wife cannot defend herself against his violence; in which women are imprisoned as accessories to crimes committed by men; in which abortion is criminalized. From the late Middle Ages, reports reveal differential treatment of men and women. Women were burned at the stake for adultery or murdering a spouse, while men would most often not be punished for such actions. In most European states rape became a capital crime in the early modern period.
However, many early jurists did not conceive of the offence as one committed against a person: since women were principally perceived legally in their relationship to a man, raping a woman was either an offence against property or an offence against parental authority.

This kind of treatment reflected ideological assumptions as well as women's subordinate positions within the family, church, and other aspects of society. While systematic imprisonment arose with industrialization, for centuries prior to that time unwanted daughters and wives were forced into convents, nunneries, and monasteries. In those cloisters were found political prisoners, illegitimate daughters, the disinherited, the physically and mentally disabled. A more general campaign of violence against women was unleashed in the witch-hunts of sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, as society tried to exert control over women by labelling them as witches. This resulted in the death by execution of tens of thousands of women.

Throughout its development the prison complex has been replete with sexist ideology and practices, from the use of female prisoners in early times by the governors of the London Bridewell who ran their prison as a lucrative brothel, forcing female inmates into providing sexual services - an "unorthodox form of prison employment". Such sexual abuse was apparently so acceptable in the U$ that the Indiana state prison ran a prostitution service for male guards, using female prisoners. Exploitation of female captives by male captors continues, with recent reports of refugees being offered "freedom" for a life on the street working for a pimp screw, to daily incidents of sexual harassment, gratuitous searches and threats of rape. Women have to deal with a whole set of factors that men do not, from intrusion by male guards to the denial of reproductive rights.

The judicial/prison system uses scaremongering tactics, such as pointing to the necessity to deal with men who commit crimes against women, as a reason for the endless importance of prisons. The urgency to end violence has compelled women to support this system. Yet this support or acceptance denies the day to day violence and fundamental harm caused by the prison system itself, from brutality inside to the isolation from families. Anyway pushing for stronger penalties for crimes against women doesn't work as the justice system is controlled through government by the economic elite. It therefore supports that elite's interests and will continue to reflect their values. Prisons serve the same purpose for women as they do for men; they are instruments of social control and capitalist design.

Prisons have significantly served to reinforce women's traditional roles, historically to foster dependency and passivity; the social stigma and conditions of incarceration serve as a warning to women to stay within the "proper female sphere." As male or female only prisons began to be established there were custodial institutions for women which corresponded by and large to men's prisons. But there were also "reformatories" which, as the name implies, were intended to be institutions that rehabilitated the character of the women held there. These reformatories had no male counterparts. There were no institutions devoted to correcting men for so-called moral offenses such as "lewd and lascivious carriage, stubbornness, idle and disorderly conduct, drunkenness, fornication, serial premarital pregnancies, keeping bad company, adultery, venereal disease and vagrancy". In fact such activities were not considered crimes when men engaged in them . A woman might face charges simply because a relative disapproved of her behaviour and reported her, or because she had been sexually abused and was being punished for it. Reformatory training centred on fostering ladylike behaviour and perfecting house-wifely skills, encouraging dependency and subjugation, and sentencing was often open-ended - a woman would stay for as long as it took to accomplish the task of reforming her.
Parole was also a patriarchal tool; women were frequently paroled into domestic jobs, the only ones for which they had been trained. In this way, vocational regulation went hand-in-hand with social control. Women were punished by revoking parole for "sauciness," obscenity, or failure to work hard enough. 19th century women were cited for a parole violation for going on car rides with men, for becoming pregnant, going around with a disreputable married man, or associating with the father of her child. The very unrepentant women were ultimately transferred indefinitely to asylums for the "feeble-minded." Reformatories were supposed to be an early form of rehabilitation, yet essentially punished those who did not conform to bourgeois definitions of femininity and prescribed gender roles. The prisoners were to embrace the social values, although of course never to occupy the social station, of a "lady".

Modern institutions retain the sexist legacy of the reformatories within contemporary structures of the patriarchy such as the strict reinforcement of gender roles and the infantilization of women through routines and paternalistic attitudes also described as a pseudo-motherly attitude, with guards calling prisoners by their first names and-admonishing them to "grow up," "be good girls" and "behave". Friendship among women is discouraged, and the homophobia of the prison system is exemplified by rules in many prisons (especially in the U$) which prohibit any type of physical contact between women prisoners. Lesbians may be confronted with extra surveillance or may receive incident reports simply because they are gay.

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