Prisons, Jails, and Reformatories: Women's

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Since the early 1900s, researchers and outside observers have been struck by the seeming pervasiveness of homosexual relationships in women's correctional institutions. In comparison to their male counterparts, female prisoners have developed a subculture in which intimate relationships between women are widely accepted and openly expressed. Criminologist Joycelyn M. Pollock-Byrne has suggested that "to describe a woman's prison without reference to the homosexual relationships found there would be like describing the prison for men without mentioning drugs or violence" (p. 144). At the same time, however, one must also question researchers' seemingly obsessive focus on female inmate sexuality. Too often women's relationships have been studied to the virtual exclusion of many other, equally important aspects of female prison life, from discipline and social control to strategies of survival and resistance.

Unfortunately, there exists no literary tradition of female prisoners writing directly about their experiences or about their interpretation of the meaning of this inmate subculture. Descriptions of same-sex relationships in women's prisons come primarily from the writings of prison administrators and outside researchers, many of whom, until recently, have subscribed to negative or stereotypical views.

Competing Explanations

Only a small proportion of female prisoners identify as lesbian. Although some decide that they are lesbian as a result of their prison experiences, the majority return to heterosexuality upon their release. Historically, the discovery of such seemingly widespread behavioral bisexuality among otherwise heterosexual women has posed a challenge to rigid, binary conceptualizations of human sexuality. During the first half of the twentieth century, prison psychiatrists characterized prison lesbianism as a perversion engaged in by immoral and degenerate women. Since mid-century, more liberal sociologists and criminologists have portrayed prison homosexuality as a response to the "pains of imprisonment" and the deprivation of "natural" heterosexual contacts. Other scholars continue to endorse the stereotype of the predatory and masculine lesbian who "turns out" vulnerable, newly arrived, but otherwise "normal" women (the "institutional" or "situational" lesbian).

Some observers suggest that much of what has been described as female inmate homosexuality may not even include a sexual component. Instead, they emphasize the affectional aspects of women's relationships, citing human warmth, companionship, and comfort as the primary motives. While female prisoners occasionally concur with that "asexual" depiction, this interpretation also serves to normalize such relationships by downplaying their sexual and erotic elements.

1900–1945: Racialization of Prison Homosexuality

Until World War II there appears to have been little interest in, or concern with, the "problem" of female prison homosexuality. Historian Estelle B. Freedman argues that until the 1940s,"women's prison authorities concentrated on diverting inmates from heterosexual acts prohibited by law—especially prostitution. They rarely mentioned lesbianism as a problem, and most women's prison officials ignored evidence of homosexuality among inmates"(p. 399).

Female prison officials may have been reluctant to draw attention to same-sex relationships among inmates because many were involved in long-standing "romantic friendships" of their own. The first generation of female prison administrators consisted typically of unmarried career women who came out of the Progressive Era tradition of female reform. Some appear to have implicitly rejected the dominant psychiatric discourse that, by the 1920s, had pathologized all forms of same-sex relationships. For example, famed prison reformer Miriam Van Waters (1887–1974) was romantically involved with women throughout her life. As superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory for Women (1932–1957), Van Waters sought to discourage homosexual relationships among inmates; however, she consistently refused to adopt a punitive approach. Van Waters's tolerance and leniency, which led to her temporary dismissal in 1949, became increasingly rare in the post–World War II era.

The main exception to this early silence involved occasional reports about, and rabid denunciations of, cross-racial romances between white and black prisoners. For example, in a 1913 article psychologist Margaret Otis described "love-making between the white and colored girls" as a "form of perversion" purportedly "well-known among workers in reform schools and institutions for delinquent girls" (p. 113). These accounts frequently portrayed African American women prisoners as the masculine or aggressive partner. In contrast, commentators represented black women's white lovers as normal, feminine women who would return to heterosexual relations upon release from prison. Hence, during the first half of the twentieth century prison lesbianism was racialized. African American women were stigmatized as the "true" sexual deviants while white women were presented as attracted to their "masculine" qualities. These explanations fit easily with widely shared cultural stereotypes about black women's purportedly "libidinous" and "oversexed" characters.

However, a careful reading of the primary sources often reveals that white women were equally active initiators or "aggressors" in pursuing interracial relationships. As one sixteen-year-old "sex delinquent" reported in 1933 when asked how she felt after viewing romantic movies in prison, "All we can do here … is take some Negro girl behind the screen at the Chapel or somewhere else. Kiss them for all we are worth. That is all the thrill we get" (Dodge, p. 147). Indeed, prison officials across the country justified racial segregation in housing assignments as a means of deterring cross-racial romances, which appear to have been common.

1940s–1960s: The Construction of the Predatory Prison Lesbian

In contrast to the early decades of the twentieth century, during the 1940s and 1950s academics and outside observers became fascinated by prison lesbianism, which became a central feature of pulp novels and Hollywood B movies about women's prisons. In the postwar era, the prison lesbian was portrayed as a distinct type: a dangerous, aggressive, predatory, oversexed, and mannish sexual demon. And for the first time, the label "lesbian" was applied to white as well as black prisoners. Indeed, pulp literature and True Confessions–like magazines emphasized the threat that aggressive white lesbians allegedly posed to younger and more naive white inmates.

Several factors contributed to this postwar shift. These include the growing visibility of LGBT life, heightened fears of female sexuality, and Cold War paranoia. Historian Regina G. Kunzel argues that the discovery of widespread bisexuality among seemingly heterosexual female prisoners raised troubling questions about the stability heterosexuality itself at a time when gender roles were rigidly prescribed. The concept of situational homosexuality, widely proffered by sociologists at mid-century, offered one means of containing the explosive implications of bisexuality. Instead of representing the ultimate perversity, prison homosexuality could be portrayed as a "normal" response to an abnormal environment.

1940s–1980s: The Reign of Repression and Paranoia

However, most prison authorities continued to view lesbianism as a grave moral danger. Extraordinarily repressive policies were implemented at many women's prisons. For example, at both the Federal Reformatory for Women at Alderson, West Virginia, and the Illinois State Reformatory for Women at Dwight, a no-contact rule severely punished all physical contact between prisoners, from combing another woman's hair to comforting a woman who had just learned of a death in her family. Staff vigilantly monitored inmate friendships, searching for the smallest sign of a potentially "unwholesome" relationship. The following note in a woman's prison file was typical of conditions in the 1950s: "Superintendent has observed Viola Marks and Ernestine Miller work side by side at laundry, sit together at rest periods. Advised Mrs. Scott to change station assignment of one and keep them apart as much as possible" (Dodge, p. 235). Across the nation, inmates bitterly complained that friendship was often construed as homosexuality.

High levels of official preoccupation with, and severe punishment of, suspected homosexuality continued throughout the 1960s and 1970s. At some institutions, suspected lesbians were singled out and assigned to segregated housing units. At the Los Angeles women's jail, staff decided who the "obvious homosexuals" were and assigned them to the "Daddy Tank," which consisted of solitary-confinement cells. In Illinois the segregation unit was a typical cell-block type of structure, whereas the other inmates were housed in more homelike "cottages" or dormitories. In Iowa suspected lesbians were required to wear a special yellow uniform. Some evidence also suggests that parole board members were more likely to deny parole to suspected lesbians. However, at other institutions a "homosexual orientation" was considered "so common" that no attempt was made to segregate such prisoners.

Studies of Female Inmate Homosexuality in the 1960s

Although sociologists had studied men's prisons for decades, it was not until the 1960s that the first sociological studies of female prisons appeared. Both David A. Ward and Gene G. Kassebaum's Women's Prisons: Sex and Social Structure (1965) and Rose Giallombardo's Society of Women: A Study of a Woman's Prison (1966) focused almost exclusively on homosexuality, role-playing, and pseudo-family structures. Pseudo-families, also referred to as play, make-believe, quasi, or state families, might include a range of kinship roles, including grandparents, parents, daughters, sons, cousins, and aunts. These roles, even those designated as "mother" and "father," did not necessarily involve a sexual component. Likewise, homosexual relationships often took place outside of pseudo-family structures. However, committed same-sex partnerships might be formalized as marriages, complete with a ceremony, with the partners referring to one another as husband and wife.

These researchers portrayed the inmate social world as dominated by highly stereotypical butch-femme roles. The male, or butch, role involved the adoption of male dress, hairstyle, language, and other specifically masculine behaviors. According to scholarly interpretation, butches, few in number, were in high demand and often used their position to take advantage of femmes. However, some observers warn that these depictions may represent researchers' caricatures more than reality. Karlene Faith interviewed former prisoners who had participated in Ward and Kassebaum's original study. She reports that they responded with chagrin, anger, and hilarity over how their relationships had been portrayed.

Prevalence of, and Inmates' Attitudes toward, Prison Homosexuality

In 1965 Ward and Kassebaum estimated that 19 percent of female inmates had participated in some form of homosexual relationship. However, more than half of both staff and inmates gave much larger estimates. Later studies offer equally wide-ranging estimates. Prisoners and staff continue to respond that "everybody is involved," giving estimates of 30 percent to 60 percent. However, studies that include survey responses indicate that only 25 percent of female inmates self-report involvement in a same-sex relationship. One problem is that "homosexuality" is not always carefully defined. Surveys often indicate a wide range of actual behaviors, from flirting, hand-holding, kissing, and caressing to full-fledged lovemaking. Given the reality of prison conditions, however, genital sex is always cited as the least frequent activity.

Although new inmates sometimes express concern about peer pressures to participate, reports of force and coercion are almost nonexistent. Frequently, women who initially see lesbianism as unnatural find that, over time, they become attracted to a particular woman. Previously heterosexual women are often surprised to discover new forms of eroticism and desire, as well as intimacy, in their relationships with women.

Obviously, not all prisoners accept this aspect of the inmate world. Some remain deeply repulsed. Others express tolerance but choose not to participate. Women who identified as lesbian before their incarceration may also distance themselves from "the life" in prison. Some feel that prison homosexuality and role-playing "gives real lesbians a bad name." Contrary to expectations, lesbians in prison do not have an easier time than heterosexual women. They must adjust to the same pains of imprisonment, which often includes having left a lover on the outside.

Changing Subcultures in the 1980s and 1990s

The broadening in women's roles since the 1970s, as well as the increased visibility and redefinition of lesbian life, have expanded the conceptions of same-sex relationships in both the world at large and the microcosm of the prison. The stereotypical role-playing described in 1960s studies (to the extent that it was an accurate representation) appears to have been replaced by a looser system and more flexible roles. Although some women continue to adopt a butch style, there exists much greater fluidity of identities and forms of sexual expression.

Likewise, several researchers writing in the 1980s and 1990s have also noted a decline in both the complexity of the pseudo-family system and the extent of inmate participation. This decline may mirror the decline of the extended family in the free world outside, as well as increased opportunities for prisoners to maintain contact with their own families. However, what has not changed is the fact that relationships among women prisoners, from friendships to romantic and pseudo-family relationships, continue to exhibit a high degree of racial integration.

Contemporary Issues

At the start of the twenty-first century, prison rules and regulations offer a wide range of responses to prisoners' same-sex relationships and activities. Many administrators continue to view homosexuality as a source of instability, believing that such relationships often lead to jealousy, fights, and other types of conflict. In nearly all prisons, sexual activity between prisoners is explicitly prohibited. Those caught risk severe sanctions, including loss of good time. However, some prisons tolerate a high degree of affection displayed between women. In these institutions female prisoners can be seen walking hand in hand, sitting with their arms around one another, and engaging in intimate conversations and touches. Other institutions (often minimum security) are far less tolerant of such open displays.

Regardless of institutional rules, whether or not a particular behavior is sanctioned depends on the correctional officer who witnesses it. Many officers choose to ignore minor displays of affection. Interestingly, some studies suggest that female correctional officers are more likely than male staff to perceive lesbianism as a threat and to discipline women for it. Female staff are also particularly troubled by instances, common in the folklore of women's prisons, of an otherwise heterosexual (often married with children) female officer falling "madly in love" with a female inmate.

Lesbian prisoners continue to face prejudice and discrimination, although less blatantly than in the past. It is likely that lesbian staff and correctional officers also experience a similarly mixed range of responses. However, very little research has been done on the subject of LGBT prison staff.


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Watterson, Kathleen. Women in Prison: Inside the Concrete Womb. Rev. ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996

L. Mara Dodge

see alsodavis, katharine bement; femmes and butches; lobdell, lucy ann; interracial and interethnic sex and relationships; prisons, jails, and reformatories: men's; romantic friendship and boston marriage; same-sex institutions; situational homosexuality; van waters, miriam.

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Prisons, Jails, and Reformatories: Women's

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