Womanhood, Deviance and Reform: Women's Rehabilation in Prison
by Julia Wilkins
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.