It’s National Reentry Week! Did you know up until the late 1800s, women, men, and children were confined together, often with no food, clothing, or bedding? Early modes of imprisonment attempted to combine punishment for past wrongdoing with attempts at reforming future behavior. The history of prisons took a new turn in the American colonies. Incarceration was relatively uncommon; instead, houses of correction, workhouses, and transportation to other colonies were methods used as modern confinement. By the 1820s, the American penal system used work, discipline, religious contemplation, and separation from the free world as a solution to change convicted criminals.
In 1873, the state of Indiana established the first separate institution for female prisoners and the first maximum-security female correctional facility in the country. For 136 years, the maximum-security facility housed all special needs population, such as geriatric, juveniles sentenced as adults, mentally ill, and pregnant female inmates. Illinois did not establish its first maximum-security prison for an adult female until 1930. Formerly called the Oakdale Reformatory for Women, the Dwight Correctional Center operated for 83 years and closed in 2013. The name Dwight Correctional Center came into existence when the prison experimented with its first co-ed population in the early 1970s.
For the most part, prisons for women in America were dirty, crowded, unsupervised, and having little regard for the safety and health of the women prisoners. By the 1940s through the ‘80s, emerged new thoughts of punishment called correction institutions. This idea moved away from harsh discipline and instead attempted to introduce treatment to newly defined inmates rather than convict populations. Prisons for women veered in two directions: custodial institutions and the reformatory. The custodial model emphasizes safety, order, discipline, adopting the retributive purpose, and male-dominated authority. Since this model dealt with more dangerous inmates, their behavior is monitored at all times. To this day, most maximum-security prisons use this method of incarceration. Lastly, the Reformatory movement established separate women’s facilities with some recognition of the gendered needs of women.
There are now more women behind bars than at any other point in U.S history. Most of these women are mothers. Incarcerated mothers face obstacles, including the high cost of phone calls and strict reunification laws that prevent mothers from regaining custody of their children. Prison nurseries give incarcerated mothers a chance to raise their babies behind bars. New mothers live with their infant children up to 18 months. New York opened the country’s first prison nursery in 1902.