Teaching and doing digital history.

Reflections on Institutions: Female Prisons & Asylums

Benjamin Reiss, Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums & Nineteenth-Century American Culture (2008)

Benjamin Reiss, in Theaters of Madness, questions the tensions between confinement and liberty in the early republic through an analysis of the cultural products relating to the asylum. He uses the writings of nineteenth-century literary figures and asylum patients to uncover the character of early psychiatric thought as a window to understand how American society viewed and processed the concept of insanity. Reiss argues that insanity-related culture was deployed as a tool to reinforce social norms and standardize behaviors. (4) In this way, the cultural products dealing with insanity worked in ways similar to the institutions, medical professionals, and social workers tackling other failures of antebellum moral thought–juvenile delinquency, deviance, mental retardation, temperance, etc.

Reiss crafts what is probably one of the clearest introductions in our readings thus far that works to firmly situate his work among his peers. David Rothman, in Discovery of the Asylum, analyzed the world of asylum superintendents as driven by a critique of the chaos of Jacksonian society. He argues that social tensions and anxieties driven by the loss of common traditions and communities influenced the structured response to insanity, in that asylums offered clear hierarchies and a sense of order, routine, and discipline. (8-9) Michel Foucault, in Madness and Civilization,  argues that power in the asylum focused on “procedures of continuous control,” which worked to control both bodies and behaviors inside the asylum. Medical professionals used minute tools of social control–like case notes–that worked to monitor, record, and count behavior. (10-11) Lastly, Erving Goffman, in Asylums, studied life in inside the asylum and argued that under the constant surveillance of the asylum, every act was monitored and folded back into the hierarchical structure of the institution. (12) Reiss uses all of these analyses, but adds subtly to them by reviewing the system of cultural control that worked as part of the clearly-established power dynamics between the insane and their keepers. Narratives thus are tools of power relationships–a very useful argument to my own work.

Reiss, an English professor, offers a literary analysis and uses fewer sources than a historian would ever deploy to support such broad conclusions. Still his work makes no apologies about the fact that he is choosing discrete slices of asylum life to draw these conclusions. He presents a multi-layered conclusion that recognizes the good intentions of reformers and the imposition of social control.

Estelle Freedman, Their Sisters’ Keepers: Women’s Prison Reform in America: 1830-1930 (1984)

Freedman, in Their Sisters’ Keepers, traces the changing history of female prisoner reformers in New York, Indiana, and Massachusetts. In a book representative of the “new social history,” she explores the origins of women’s concerns for female inmates from 1870 to 1920 using records from the institutions and reformers themselves. Freedman’s history of the changing nature of female prisons and the women who were their keepers follows the same general trajectory as the histories of reformatories, mental institutions, child-saving institutions, and juvenile court systems that we’ve studied thus far. (Of note: the trajectory of female prison reform seemed to stress women’s uniquely feminine realm more heavily than other institutional movements.)

Freedman draws upon the two frameworks that dominate the study of the history of women: the changing status of women after the Revolution as the economy turned from agriculture to industry, and the function of the separate female sphere. Freedman argues that the movement to aid female prisoners had roots in the antebellum, domestic, female sphere, yet it facilitated white middle-class women’s entry into public and professional work by the end of the century (2, 63-64).

Freedman argues that prisons were originally built to hold men and that early female criminals were typically policed by their separate female communities–family and church. By the early nineteenth century, 1840s to be exact, Freedman argues, female criminals entered the “criminal class” (12). This trend seems to align with Halttunen’s observation that the nature of crime literature changed from a community problem to social evil in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, Freedman’s distinction between the nature of women’s crime comparative to men is also illuminating for my own purposes–by and large, Freedman, argues, women were imprisoned for behavioral crimes whereas men were imprisoned for crimes against person and property (13-15).

Also of note, she endeavors to address the tensions that were created when women clung to the definition of women’s separate nature,  which limited their own power and often stifled the inmates they sought to help. Nineteenth-century prison reformers used this “separate sphere” argument, while Progressive-era reformers began to question it. While the observation that nineteenth-century prison reformers relied on the “separate sphere” argument is firmly established and well-argued, I’m less comfortable with the discussion of the Progressive-era reformers discomfort with it. She seems to be arguing that the shift from the biological roots of criminology to a focus on environmental and social factors played into this attitude change (I’m not entirely sure if this is her actual argument or if I’m drawing on our other books to fill in holes in her discussion).

L. Mara Dodge, Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind: A Study of Women, Crime, and Prisons, 1835-2000, (2006)

Mara Dodge, in Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind, writes an exhaustive history of prison reform in Illinois between 1835 and 2000 (although rich detail is scarce after 1970). While she includes no detailed insight to how she used her sources–her sources appendix is limited to the types and information available, not her methodology–one can make the argument that this is the type of research project that could only be accomplished by significant digital database work. And for that reason alone, it is an impressive read. There is so much rich detail that absorbing all the information covered in the 135-year period is tough.

Dodge traces the creation and changes across the Illinois state prison system from the first woman incarcerated in 1835 to a modern period. In so doing, she traces the social forces that shaped the imprisonment of women during this time. It’s a long book, with fourteen chapters and three different sections, each behaving really like mini-research projects. She alternates between a strict chronological approach and a thematic one.

Part II traces the social construction of crime and criminality and this where I thought her best work lived. Fundamentally, Dodge argues that criminality and the treatment of female inmates in Illinois was socially constructed. In these chapters, she covers important broad topics useful for my own work: social and legal processes through an act or behavior gets cast as criminal; statistics on the crimes that landed women in jail; and a useful collective demographic profile of female prisoners, including how race, ethnicity, nativity, age, and other subjective assessments affected their lived experiences in prison.

I don’t feel I fully absorbed all the information in this book, but I am concerned that such a rich picture of Illinois is read out as exemplary of the experiences of female prisoners across all of America. Since I am also working on a state study, navigating how to position the importance of such a study, and its application beyond state boundaries, are top of my mind.


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