Tag Archives: prison reform

Feminist history of prison reform

The feminist history of prison reform is described by Estelle Freedman, Stanford Professor  exemplified by Miriam Van Waters, the warden who changed the conditions and potential of prison for women in the 40’s.  From the earliest days of feminism in the 1800’s, prison reform has been a main thread of the intention and passion of the efforts to bring to those incarcerated an expression of a potential return to society.  We see in the world today the exponential growth of those incarcerated, men and women, and the failure of the prison system with the cost of prison and  loss of the potential of those incarcerated to contribute and participate in society. Estelle Freedman describes the feminism of Van Waters brought to women imprisoned in the 40’s from punitive to nurturance and the effects Van Waters brought to Framingham prison at the time.   Women in prison through the popular network series Orange is the New Black written by Piper Kernam, a Smith graduate,  who found herself in prison says her goal in this work is to bring recognition to the women in prison.  She has sounded the alarm that there is an 80% increase in the number of women being imprisoned in the past twenty years, and asks significant questions about their treatment and the future that they are less able to create out of prison once released.

Work by the  Ella Baker Center Center who have taken significant legislation to the State of California that has emptied some of the youth facilities and created positive change for youth with the goal of bringing the youth to active participation in society upon their release through Books Not Bars.   Currently they bring legislation to Sacramento to address the issues of incarceration.  They present the question ” What happens when women in prison leave children and families that need their care, and return with less ability to meet the conditions they face after prison-is this the best we can do for women?”  Ella Baker for their work in prison reform through Books not Bars has recently been awarded Google’s Bay Area Impact Challenge, with Executive Director Zachary Norris being granted a Prime Movers Fellowship.  The story of reform in prison, past and present, illustrates the need for a revision by all of society to evaluate the cost of incarceration, for women, for men and for the families and community.  Outrageous expense in maintaining the facilities and staff are one cost that is staggering.  But not often is  the cost of the loss of those in prison not able to participate with their children, their parents during imprisonment.  With limited rehabilitation or education, training or work, the lives of those in prison have them return with less ability to function in society when they have release.  The families have little or no support throughout their incarceration, or upon their return.  The profile of women incarcerated indicates they leave with even  less confidence to manage the difficulties they will face in restarting their lives. What can be done, what must be done is the question, and a major achievement by the Ella Baker Center’s Books not Bars has been to close youth facilities where the youth had been stored without preparation or training that would allow for a future upon their release.  A change in structure perceived and practiced by Van Waters can add significantly to the effectiveness of feminism in prison.

From the 1800’s, feminists have worked for Prison reform, and Estelle Freedman, brings up the name of Miriam Van Waters, and the practice under her leadership of maternal vs punitive structure for prison.   In 1848 two women in a Quakers meeting in Seneca Falls, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott and their husbands, in what is called the first wave of feminism sought to change the conditions under which men and women were imprisoned.  Freedman describes this first wave in her book of essays:  Feminism, Sexuality and Politics.   These first feminists  she describes as  “religiously motivated white middle class women in the late 19th Century”  who witnessed the squalor and abuse in conditions of prison, and sought to provide prisoners  conditions that offered the possibility of redemption.   The result of their efforts ultimately resulted  in separatism rather than a revisiting the conditions of prison, and that had women in separate facilities but the conditions unchanged in either prisons for men or women.

Dr. Freedman establishes in her book a framework from which to view the perspective of past present and future of feminism:  She states that the goal for feminism has always been in the historical context of social change to “not only empower women but to transform all American culture.”  Her study of the work of Miriam Van Waters, a very powerful visionary and prison director in the 1940’s illustrates the attempt and success that did not translate or generate to other prisons, but was a powerful vision nevertheless.

Miriam Van Waters brought groundwork to significant reform and accomplished a great deal in her role in the Massachusetts State Reform for Framingham prison. Van Waters sought to put in place redemptive and educational structure rather than punitive measures within prison.  Her work as Director of the women’s prisons became known nationally for taking “involuntary confinement to a place of voluntary community.”  Under her direction,  Framingham Prison for women allowed the women prisoners to  participate  in nurseries for the children, gardening, art and provided skill trainings for the women in an atmosphere of growth and nurturing.   The results were so outstanding and well reported, Dr. Freedman reports,  that students from Vassar, Smith, Wellesley sought to intern at these prisons then considered the hallmark of social welfare advance.

What happened to those efforts by feminists, by people in society who wanted to see the transformation that had been aspired to is a question for social researchers and feminists, and is the question of our time that must be answered.

Freedman identities the response of feminism now as those young people who are showing up and politically acting toward the betterment of humanity.   The millineals, Gen X and Y’s, those who seek equality of opportunity and access.   Certainly the young people who show up and volunteer and make the work happen at the Ella Baker Center’s Book Not Bars are a good example of what Freedman describes. .  They are the young people taking their skills to teach children in low income schools to learn to code.  They are the ones that seek social justice and many of them were more than likely among the Occupy movement of 2012 and 2013.  They are world wide, women demonstrating the need for education as a means to address poverty and freedom from sexual bondage.  They bring their  issues of inequity and abuse of power world wide, showing up in the streets with their cell phones and their tweets,  with small and large acts of rebellion in Egypt and Syria, and Turkey.  The third wave of feminism as Freedman sees it, are those youth who think globally, identify with the politics of equality on the job and in the world they will inherit.