The Lives and Sufferings of Women in Prison
Mothers and children reunited: one day of joy each year
Memoirist Piper Kerman, spending a year incarcerated in a minimum security women’s prison, recounts one day of frolic, beginning with exuberance, but ending in anguish. One day each year, this prison allows children to visit their mothers. Various games and amusements are planned and set up; Ms. Kerman took charge of a face-painting booth. Still, a subtle sadness shadows the fun. Both mothers and children strive not to view each passing hour as one hour less they will be allowed to remain with each other. Given their effervescence, children sometimes find this easier to put out of their minds than do their mothers.
The end of the event
Still, however much they succeed in forgetting, at the designated time, they have no choice but to have their last hugs, tears and good-byes. Both mothers and children know they will not be permitted to see one another again until the next visiting day, when normal restrictions will be once again in full force. During the evening after this day, respect for their pain is acknowledged by allowing these women to remain in their cells, with their dinners brought to them.
Differences between men and women in prison
There is no doubt male prisoners pine to see their offspring when “doing time”. In addition to day-to-day domesticity, with all its bright triumphs and petty squabbles, they are often forced to miss such significant moments as graduations and weddings. Still, there is a profound depth of poignancy in the forced separation of mothers from children. Nature’s hormones ensure a wellspring of love, starting when a newborn is brought from the womb, with the power to weather the spectrum from having to change a diaper at lunchtime, to being roused from sleep at 3 A.M., while expected to be at work at 9 in the morning.
The grip of this devotion can backfire in prison in that the ache to nurture, unsatisfied, can become as painful as milk which hardens within the breasts of some female animals, when their young have died or been taken from them. Compelled to be locked back in their cells after such a day of happiness, these human mothers’ agony remains unabated until it begins to fade, due to the survival processes of the body and brain, and the understanding of fellow inmates.
Evolving concepts of imprisonment
In early times prisons were not considered a form of punishment, but more of a place were criminals were held before trial or before the punishments sentenced by the courts were administered. In fact many of the punishments such as branding and whipping were carried out in the courthouse on the day of sentence. Sentences that included a time period might be the prisoner being held in the stocks or pillory. Serious crimes which included petty theft often resulted in penalty of death by burning or hanging.
Houses of correction
During the 16th and 17th and into the 18th century there were in existence "Houses of Correction" that were managed by religious orders or local business. These places were used as an additional punishment for petty criminals and or a place were down-and-outs, tramps, and beggars would be forced into hard labor. It was perceived that a few years of hard work and religious instruction would turn these miscreants into good honest members of society.
Transportation by ship to the colonies
Another form of punishment during the 17th and into the 18th century was that of transportation. The sentence was normally for a period of seven years hard labor in the colonies, usually America or Australia. However the number of convicts continued to increase along with the cost of transporting them to and from these faraway places. The added administration of prisoner’s property and their repatriation upon return was proving cumbersome.
The revival of the prison with male female separation
This brought about a revival of the prison becoming a favored form of punishment providing it included meaningful correction of the criminal, turning them into good citizens. In truth, those who were strong were forced into heavy work projects and those who lacked the strength were sent to work in the “House of Correction”. Either way, the prisoner was subjected to penal servitude, and the concept of meaningful correction was in fact the administering of harsh punishments, blatant cruelty and foul conditions.
The management of large numbers of prisoners being forced into what in reality was slavery was becoming a national embarrassment. Hence, in the early 18th century there was an accelerated building program of new prisons. This program brought about the practice of separating men from women in separate blocks within the prisons, but the conditions remained horrendous and even more so for women who were still being abused by male convicts and jailers.
The early reforms led by the Quakers
Elizabeth Fry was a Quaker philanthropist who campaigned for prison reform. She described a visit to a women’s prison block in 1813 as shocking. Some 300 hundred women, many with children were crowded into three rooms. There was straw bedding, but for many there was none. Many were sick and suffering from the freezing winter conditions, and there was fighting for the clothing of the dead.
Elizabeth Fry along with other Quakers worked with the prison staff to bring about changes. Women prisoners were taught homely skills and to work together in making salable goods and encouraged to school their children. There were also daily bible classes.
Her work influenced future prison reform and in 1823 parliament passed an Act which required that men and women prisoners must be separated and female jailers would be employed to oversee the women and children.
It was not until 1902 that the first all women prison was designated, this was the new City of London Prison now known as Holloway. In America the first prison for only women opened in Indiana in 1873.
Trapped and imprisoned as I may be,
I lift a latch and my thoughts go free.— John Donne
Corrie Ten Boom
Corrie Ten Boom was born in April 1892 and died April 1983. She was a devout Christian and during the Second World War she and her family assisted Jews in escaping the Nazi Holocaust. Corrie and her sister Betsie were imprisoned in the Ravensbrück Nazi concentration camp were Betsie died in 1944 aged 59.
Women in control of other women’s lives
Ideally, the sisterhood of compassion between two women on opposite sides of the prison system would create a deepened compassion. While this concern might develop at times, it was and is, by no means the norm.
Arguably, the most unjust imprisonment is based on political views, and/or governmental contingencies. Perhaps the ultimate illustration of this occurred in the WWII Nazi holocaust. In her memoir, “The Hiding Place”, Ravensbrück concentration camp survivor Corrie Ten Boom recounts that if forced to plead for a scrap of compassion, a male guard was more likely to provide it than was a female.
Women prisoners at Ravensbrück women only Nazi concentration camp. The female guards were known to be sadistic and brutal
Betsie Ten Boom one of thousands who died
Corrie’s sister Betsie, arrested and confined with her, proved less able than Corrie to withstand the intensive labor combined with the meager portions of frequently inedible food. One afternoon, a female guard mocked Betsie’s swaying gait and ungainly movements. With a resigned half-smile, Betsei said, “Yes, that’s me alright.” Chagrined and enraged by Betsie’s dignity, the guard knocked her to the ground and then began beating her. Shortly thereafter, Betsie died in the camp, perhaps due to this final onslaught on her already frail body. Still, Corrie made this death a triumph by preserving the memory of such quiet grace in response to this needless cruelty by one woman towards another.
The final days of Anne Frank a Jewish victim of the holocaust
Anne Frank’s diary began soon after her thirteenth birthday in mid June 1942 shortly before her family felt compelled to go into hiding in order to evade Nazi persecution, and continues until 1st August 1944, three days before their arrest by police and the SS. Her written thoughts have become one of the pivotal documentations of the day-to-day life which, fun and enjoyable at times, was shadowed by the ceaseless threat of being discovered and killed.
Countless pubescent girls, like myself, have found a friend through the pages of Anne Frank’s diary. Much of this affinity springs from her being so unabashedly human. At times, she writes of being rebellious at school, and admits to fascination with the lives of film stars. Once in hiding confined to “the secret annex”, she voices annoyance at their meddlesome neighbor, her urge “to give Mummy a good shaking”, and the bittersweet joy of falling in love with a young man, also in hiding, who seems at first to have preferred her older sister, due to her being prettier and appearing brighter.
Primal urges brought forth by deprivation
Following her arrest she was moved to a number of prison camps before finally being sent to the women's section at the Bergen-Belsen Nazi concentration camp. Once there, she soon found herself in danger of death caused by starvation. Hannah Goslar a former classmate of Anne, was aghast at seeing her, bald and emaciated, through a fence dividing sections of the camp. Hannah was held in a part of the camp reserved for privileged prisoners.
Made frantic by her nearness to death, Anne pleaded with Hannah to bring whatever food and clothing she could scavenge, and then pass it to her through a small opening in the fence. Hence, Hannah brought a small package to Anne at the agreed-upon time. Seconds after Anne grasped this package another woman leapt out and grappled it from her hands. Anne pursued this thief with the force of any animal whose existence has come to rely on a few crumbs and morsels.
The right to survive
Anne Frank died during an outbreak of typhoid fever which became rampant in the prison camp. Even her youthful immune system, once weakened by hunger and thirst, succumbed to this illness.
As readers, it is tempting to detest the woman who might have weakened Anne Frank's fragile hold on survival. Still, objectively viewed, this woman’s need and right to survive was equal to that of Anne Frank, and any fellow sufferer. The tragedy lies in the reduction of human life to a jungle-like struggle for basic subsistence.
Between 1941 and 1945 approximately 70,000 prisoners died at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Liberated on April 15, 1945 there remained 60,000 prisoners many starved and sick, plus a further 13,000 dead bodies.
Young woman drawn into money laundering
The above-mentioned Piper Kerman, having graduated from college during the early 1990s, went to stay with a friend who enjoyed a free-wheeling lifestyle. Shortly after arriving, Piper began to notice sudden influxes of large amounts of cash, and the need to bank it with haste. In addition, different people were needed to make these deposits. Eventually, she was asked to become one of these emissaries. Although suspecting illegal activities, Piper agreed to what she tried to justify as errands to help the friend in whose home she was staying.
When her past came to capture her
Eventually, as this life lost its allure and she felt forced to see the ominous implications of her involvement, she returned to the area where she had friends and fellow graduates who could help her find legitimate work. In time, she became engaged to a stable, devoted young man named Larry. Having found both employment and love, it seemed safe for her to believe she had erased her previous errors. Her fiancée, knowing of these mistakes, agreed. Then, years later, she was contacted by the police and told she had been informed upon by her former comrades.
Consequences of her previous crime
Placed under no physical restraint, Piper and Larry could easily have fled America. Yet, to do so would mean they would need to spend their married life in fear of police pursuit. What sort of life would that create for them, their closest family members, and the children they hoped to raise without fear of a shadow? Thus, in 2004, ten years after her crime, Piper, escorted by Larry, arrived at a minimum security women’s prison in Danbury Connecticut, where she was to serve out 13 months of her 15-month sentence.
As Piper concedes, her most profound lesson came in the form of seeing the horrors that substances of various kinds had wrought upon the lives of so many inmates. Some stated their plans to seek their substance of choice as their first act after obtaining their freedom. Others had become so habituated to painkillers and sedatives as to spend their prison time in a marionette-like trance. Prison doctors were glad to prescribe whatever was needed, as a means of calming those who might have otherwise proved recalcitrant.
Piper’s realization and release
As an upper-middle class graduate of a respected college, Piper had never envisaged the bleak underworld of women given over to substances as their sole form of refuge. These embodiments shamed and disgusted her at having been a component, however small, of such a demoniac circle. After her release, she and Larry were married, and have had children together. Her memoir ends with a sense of her developed and ongoing Compassion.
Gender preference in prison
To some degree, institutions where men and women are separated for extensive time periods are bound to result in physical need seizing control of any previous sense of morality. The consequential relationships can range from genuine passion and tender love to simple expedience.
“I'm a man's woman. I don't like women; I use them.”
Florence "Florrie" Fisher, imprisoned for drug and moral offenses, stated this on public television on the highly respected program, "Open End" during a 1967 interview with the eminent host David Susskind. The cascade of letters sent in response to her candor led to her becoming a national speaker regarding the life-wrecking dangers of drugs.
Ms. Fisher's memoir, The Lonely Trip Back, describes her intimacies with other women as a release for them both, rather than based upon deep and lasting affection.
Differing bases for same gender relationships
According to other accounts, women who were lesbians prior to their imprisonment, tend to seek a partner for a deep connection. These women avoid others with sentences significantly shorter than their own, afraid of the emotional emptiness when a partner leaves prison. Others, like Ms. Fisher, who seek only brief physical gratification, engage with those with similar goals.
Naturally, young women are widely desired and preyed upon. In one prison, a girl in her early twenties was subjected to a beating every day, in order to force her to choose which of her fellow inmates would be her partner. This meant her selection must be drawn from her group of assailants and attackers. Once she had committed to one of them, fidelity on both sides was expected. Then, some while later, a falling-out ended this entanglement. Fortunately, the young woman’s sentence ended before a further series of beatings compelled her to choose a new source of affection.
A current return to prisons as houses of correction
In a positive way, society has begun to implement those earlier century ideals which provided women with skills to give them a sense of validity. Education programs have been introduced, meant to enhance the likelihood of success in finding post-prison work in which they can enjoy a sense of achievement.
One method is to encourage convicts to raise puppies to become guide dogs for sight impaired people. Reading books to be recorded is an equally valuable source of learning to understand the needs of those striving to overcome limitations. In addition, the internet has facilitated jobs such as making airline and other types of reservations by phone, then typing the details into a computer. Minimal as these payments might be, they represent worthwhile work-often the first legal employment such women have found.
True, there will always be those who participate in such activities to alleviate boredom and gain points for parole hearings. Still, whatever their first motivations, can anyone share a cell with a puppy, gently readying it to learn helpful ways, without tapping into their own nurturing resources? Similarly, having earned a legitimate income, will women wish to return to shabby lives with abysmal futures? I believe a significant number, given the opportunity, can eventually be integrated back into society. If so, then WELCOME!
Please enter the poll
Do you believe education and opportunities for learning proves beneficial to prisoners on a long term basis?
- Boom, Corrie Ten and Elizabeth & John Sherrill: The Hiding Place.
- Fisher, Florrie: The Lonely Trip Back: narrated, Jean Davis and Todd Persons
- Frank, Anne and Michael Marland: The Diary of Anne Frank.
- Gold, Alison Leslie: Hannah Goslar Remembers.
- Kerman, Piper: Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison.
Questions & Answers
© 2014 Colleen Swan