Humans are peculiar creatures endowed with ability to think, reason, socialize, and make rational and logical decisions. This aspect differentiates human beings from other animal species living in the universe. Unlike animals, human beings have formulated and enacted laws that guide their daily activities. Nations across the globe have formulated and enacted criminal laws through the act of parliament with the aim of maintaining status quo and social order (Engdahl, 2010). Although criminal laws differ across nations, they remain effective in deterring crime; promote coexistence and unity among the people. Under the provisions of the constitution, members of the society should abide by the laid down regulations as envisioned in the criminal laws at all times. Any person who travels against the law remains subject to incarceration irrespective of the person’s position in the society. In this context, men and women have found their way behind bars for committing criminal felonies and other misdemeanors activities.
Historically, communities used different forms of punishment to reprimand law violators and maintain the status quo. Earlier forms of sanctions entailed the use of corporal punishment, capital punishment, and public humiliation. Corporal punishment and public humiliation applied on criminals charged with minor felonies while capital punishment applied to criminals convicted for serious charges. These forms of punishment helped in deterring crime in the society, but there was no criminal justice system to validate effectiveness of sanction imposed on lawbreakers thus infringing fundamental-basic human rights. Most states implemented penal system amended their criminal statutes in pursuit of protecting human rights and integrity of criminal justice system. This move forms the cornerstone upon, which current criminal justice system operates.
In the last few decades, the number of women incarceration has increased tremendously; an idea that rises a concern from different quotas. There are more than one million women inmates serving their sentence in federal and states prisons in United States. Report released by Bureau of Justice Statistics (2000) affirm that the number of women under the umbrella of criminal justice system has expanded by 4.5% since 1985. This translates that women account for 7% of the total number inmates waiting trial, charged, and convicted for different felonies. Report released by National Institute of Justice Statistics (1998) indicated that; although women have maintained a lower incarceration rate than men, their population has doubled that of men dramatically; 403% and 201% respectively (National Institute of Justice Statistics, 1998). Women are primarily incarcerated for drug and property related offenses while men are charged for serious offenses. In the recent past, reforms have taken place in the penal system and criminal justice system with the aim of improving living conditions of women inmates in correction facilities.
Women held in general population with men
Initially, imprisonment was not used as form of sanction because lawbreakers never underwent through trials. In 1500s, the American law stipulated that lawbreakers be punished immediately and be allowed to interact with other members of the society. However, this provision only applied to ordinary people charged for minor felonies and not high ranked political leaders charged with war atrocities and wealthy debt defaulters. Throughout history, women have formed a segment of prisoners serving their jail term in federal and state prisons(Rothman & Norval, 1998). Initially, women have been imprisoned with men in workhouses, refuge and correction facilities before American Civil War ended. Both men and women were confined in workhouses waiting for trials before they were convicted for the charges they committed. During this period, jails and workhouses performed different roles from the one known today. These facilities were non-punitive institutions because they housed both women and men convicts waiting for trial and pre-trial judgments.
Separate room/wing in same facility
American has a long history about women prisons, but it was until in 18th and 19th centuries that incarceration of women for a long time started. This moved changed the pattern at which, women and men prisoners shared correction facilities. Following dramatic change in criminal statues and implementation of penal codes, correction officers started using classification system to separate women prisoners from women. However, shortage of correction facility experienced by then influenced how women and men prisoners shared the facility. In this case, women were grouped and assigned rooms that remained separate from the men prisoners. Male prison wardens guarded men prisoners while female prison wardens provided security to women prisoners. It was until the parliament enacted the Equal Employment Opportunity of 1972 that men guards were allowed to guard women prisoners in female correction facilities.
Separate building on prison grounds
Feminist and social movements continued to pressure the government to reform prisons by advocating the introduction of reformatory policies in penal system. Reformatory policies aimed at establishing prisons that housed adult men and women prisoners separately (Rafter, 1985). The implementation of reformatory policies and penal codes enabled correction facilities management expand the number of prisons. This move played an integral role in reducing overcrowding, outbreak of contagious diseases and poor and harsh living condition experienced in the correction facilities. During the eighteenth century, crusaders of reformatory policies conducted a comprehensive survey in prisons and established that the facilities were at deplorable conditions for women prisoners (Rafter, 1985). In order to address this condition, correction facility management was compelled construct separate women prisons. Initially, women prisoners were housed in separate wings, but under the same apartment with men prisoners. This mode of classification adapted congregate model where women were confined in one large room. However, under the reformatory plan, correction facility management adapted cottage model where women were no longer housed in a single room, but rather in small cottages. This plan helped in reducing overcrowding, spread of contagious diseases, and improved welfare of women prisoners.
Women held in separate correction facilities
Nineteenth century remains a fascinating era because it is during this period that the first women prison was established. Initially, women inmates occupied different room with men prisoners, but under the same prison building. However, establishment of Mount Pleasant Female Prison in 1870s; marked the end and the beginning of a new era. The facility housed women prisoners and female guards guarded the facility. The law had denied men guards to directly interact with women prisoners as well as secure employment in female correction facilities. It was until the parliament enacted Civil Rights Act of 1965 and Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 that male guards got the chance to interact directly with women prisoners’ .Unlike the men correction facilities, women prisons embarked on empowering women with skills, knowledge, and education thus empowering them. Several factors contributed in this paradigm shift ranging from legal, social, and political. However, feminist and social movements and change of criminal statues remained the main contributors. Feminist and social movements compelled the government to reform its penal system in pursuit to safeguard interests and welfare of women prisoners; an idea that lead to the establishment of first female correction facility in New York.
Reforms in women prisons
Major reforms have taken place for the last two decades and transformed the living conditions of women prisoners in federal and state prisons. The number of women prisoners have gradually increased and exerted pressure of correction facilities thus compelling the government to establish women facilities. Historically, several factors ranging from social, political, economic and cultural have played a pivotal role in reforming women prisons. These aspects include; education, labor work, discipline, medical services, pregnancy, mother and their children, sexual abuse and gender bias.
For many years, education has played an integral part in developing and reforming women prisons. After the American civil war, middle class women formed feminist movements that advocated for better living conditions of women and children in prisons. The feminist movement established prison movement reform that helped in creating women and adult reformatory programs. The movement fought tirelessly for the rights of women prisoners until female correction facilities were established across the nation.
During the Jacksonian Era, penal system employed labor as a form of punishment to deter crime. Women prisoners were subjected to harsh working conditions thus depriving them basic human rights. Reforms have changed this aspect and advocated the use of other effective rehabilitative forms such as parole punishment, retribution, and probation programs (Lawrence, 1993). Most women charged with minor felonies serve their jail term under parole and probation rehabilitative programs.
Penal system has enhanced its effectiveness by integrating community based retribution programs to deter crime and instill discipline among women prisoners. Through parole programs, women prisoners were trained to uphold societal values and morals as a means to deter crime and maintain social order. Correction facility officers relate well with women prisoners because they have undergone training and other vocational courses.
Lack of health care services remains one of the challenges incarcerated women face in prison settings. Most women suffer from chronic diseases and require regular medical checkups and special care. Since colonial period, penal system has failed to provide prisoners with quality, reliable and affordable medical services thus leading to outbreak of diseases. Overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions have escalated outbreak of contagious diseases in correction facilities. Penal policies stipulate that correctional officers should approval medical services before allowing medical practitioner to treat a prisoner (Atwood, 2000). However, through correction officers have been trained to offer First Aid to women prisoners.
Biologically, incarcerated women conceive while in prisons. Report released by Bureau of Justice Statistics (2007) affirm that more than 5% of women in prison enter correction facilities pregnant. Expectant mothers require regular medical attention, balanced diet, clean environment, and peace, but correction officers fail to avail such needs. Lack of these fundamental rights places the life of the mother and the child at risk. In the last few years, the government advocated that pregnant mothers should be secluded from other women prisoners until childbirth. This move has reduced the number pregnant women prisoners dying during childbirth and from other delivery complications. In 1997, the parliament enacted Adoption and Safe Families Act to preserve mother-child bond. The Act advocated that mothers with children below 15 months be accorded certain privileges so that to ensure the child grew well.
Women prisoners remain vulnerable to sexual abuse and rape while serving their sentence in jail and after finishing their jail term. Recent report released by Bureau of Justice Statistics (2008) affirmed that more than 600 prisoners are sexual abuse every day. Women prisoners account for more than 75% of sexual abused prisoners annually. Reforms have taken place to address this issue and safeguard welfare of women prisoners. In 2003, Prison Elimination Act was enacted by the parliament and signed into law by President Bush. This move has reduced the number of rape cases reported in correction facilities.
Gender bias and has remained an impediment for decades in criminal justice system. This aspect has prevailed in women prisons since the colonial period and affects normal operation of correction facilities. Hispanic women prisoners interlock with other women prisoners because they are intimidated, discriminated, and oppressed. Gender biasness remains deeply rooted in criminal justice system and infringe basic human rights. Judgers also escalated gender biasness in their ruling by incarcerating Hispanic convicts for long term in prison (Robert, 2007). The government through an act of parliament ought to formulate policies and laws that promote equality among women prisoners.
Criminal laws play an integral role in maintaining status quo, social order and deterring crime. During the colonial period, corporal punishment, public humiliation and capital punishment was used to punish lawbreakers. In the last few decades, the number of women prisoners has increased gradually; an idea that rises a concern from the public. America has more than one million incarcerated women housed in state and federal prisons. History of women prison can be traced during the 18th and 19th centuries. The first women correction was established in 1870s in New York. During this period, correction officers educated and trained women prisoners to sew, cook, and perform other manual work. Women prisons have undergo numerous in pursuits to improve living conditions of inmates. Reforms have focused on health care, implementation of parole and probation punishment, gender equality, sexual abuse and rape, maternal health care for expectant and incarcerated women prisoners and women empowerment via education. Reforms, change in political pattern and advancement in technology continue to transform women prisons in the country.
Atwood, J. (2000). Too Much Time: Women in Prison.. New York: Phaido Press.
Bureau of Justice Statistics (2000). Women Offenders; D.C., U.S Department of Justice, Office of Justice Program
Bureau of Prison. (2000, February 4). BOP: Federal Bureau of Prisons Web Site. BOP: Federal Bureau of Prisons Web Site. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from http://www.bop.gov/
Engdahl, S. (2010). Prisons. . Farmington Hills: Greenhaven Press.
Lawrence, F. (1993). Crime and Punishment in American History. New York: Basic Books.
National Institute of Justice Statistics (1998). Incarcerated Parents and their Children; Washington Department of Justice, Office of Justice Program.
Robert, J. (2007). The Federal Bureau of Prisons: Its Mission, History, and Its Partnership with Probation and Pretrial Services. Federal Probation, 61(53), 28-33.
Rothman, D., & Norval, M. (1998). The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rafter, N. (1985). Gender, Prison and Prison history. Social Science History, 9(3), 233-247.