Womanhood, Deviance and Reform: Women's Rehabilation in Prison

by Julia Wilkins

criminals must
"first of all be
taught to be
women and
must learn all
duties. "

The belief that women who commit crime have strayed from their traditional roles influences the sentences they receive in court and the way they are treated in prison. Programs in prison are designed to rehabilitate women to acceptable states of womanhood and while the roles of wife, mother and homemaker are reinforced, women's diverse problems and needs are overlooked.

Since one of the main reasons women commit crime is economic need, such programs are clearly misdirected. The majority of women in prison have limited means and are the sole supporters of their families. Poor, uneducated, unskilled, marginally employed women continue to be over-represented in penal institutions; having little education and poor job skills prior to imprisonment, their problems are likely only to intensify upon release. If prisons are to assist women in overcoming poverty and becoming reintegrated as functioning members of society, training programs must provide them with skills which help them obtain jobs that make a real difference to their lives.

Historically, men and women have been treated differently by the criminal justice system. In the United States, this dates back to colonial times when female offenders were considered to be evil, fallen women and a threat to social order and national stability.1 Women were consequently treated more harshly than men. They were incarcerated under deplorable and unsanitary conditions until the late 19th century when, under pressure from reform movements, separate institutions for women were established, These were designed to simulate a homelike environment and had the specific aim of helping women become "ladylike" and accept appropriate female behavior.2

Reformers believed that fallen women could only be uplifted by applying domestic arts to correction, Josephine Shaw Lowell, among other nineteenth century reformers, maintained that female criminals must "first of all ... be taught to be women ... and ... must learn all household duties."3 The Women's Prison Association of New York explained that "a Home is the very heart of the undertaking on behalf of female convicts,"4 Rehabilitation within the new institutions consequently focused on traditional homemaking skills such as cooking, laundry, sewing, cleaning, and practical nursing.5 While these correctional facilities did improve the treatment of incarcerated women, they also reinforced and perpetuated women's stereotypical gender roles. It is against this historic background that the treatment and programming for women in prison has evolved.

Féminité, déviance et reforme: La réadaptation des femmes dans les prisons
par Julia Wilkins

La croyance selon laquelle les femmes qui commettent un crime se sont écartées de leur rôle traditionnel exerce une influence sur les peines auxquelles sont condemnés et sur la façon dont elles sont traitées en prison. À l'époque des colonies, on estimait que les contrevenantes faisaient peser line menace sur l'ordre social et sur la stabilité nationale. Selon les réformateurs du XIXe siècle, on pouvait "perfectionner" les femmes incarcérées en leur enseignant les arts domestiques et en leur apprenant a tenir correctement le rôle qui leur incombait.

Résultat de ce genre de raisonnement: beaucoup de femmes dont les besoins sont tout autres finissent dans un système carcéral qui se contente de perpétuer leur situation, alors qu'elles sont déjà défavorisées. Dans les prisons, on tente coûte que coûte de féminiser les femmes; on les pousse à maigrir a faire pousser leurs cheveux et a se maquiller, a adopter des comportements féminins et a être hétérosexuelles. Les programmes de formation ont tendance à mettre l'accent sur les soins de beauté, les services d'alimentation le secrétariat ou les travaux de bureau. Les femmes incarcérées n'ont pas besoin de leçons dans l'art de la domesticité ou sur le comportement qu'elle doive afficher en tant que femmes mais de cours de formation axées sur des compétences qui leur permettront à leur sortie de prison de trouver des emplois stimulants.

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