Ever since America's first women's prison opened nearly 200 years ago, debate has raged over how to treat female inmates.
WOMEN'S PRISONS have long been lugubrious places in popular imagination, salacious versions of men's prisons where intimidatingly butch women struggle for social dominance between sex romps on the side. The image is so entrenched that many women sent to prison think this is how it will be. They're as surprised as anyone to find that the woman sharing their cell is not the kind of violent and sexually predatory criminal they had always seen on television but a 35-year old single mother of three, for example, serving a five-year mandatory sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense.
After several years and hundreds of hours spent visiting women in MCI-Framingham while researching a book, I've also come to realize that life in a woman's prison is at once less violent and more depressing than the sensationalized image depicts. Unlike the men's prisons in the state, where according to the Department of Correction's latest figures, 69 percent are serving time for violent crimes, almost two thirds of incarcerated women - 63 percent - are serving time for nonviolent offenses. Most are drug and alcohol addicts; about a third, according to a spokesman for Dr. Kenneth Appelbaum, the state's director of correctional mental health services, are seriously mentally ill. And 71 percent are mothers.
Cut off from their families, provided with little help in maintaining contact with their children, and offered a minimum of education and job-training programs, more than 60 percent of the women in Framingham receive some kind of mental health services. The truth is that the air in a woman's prison is filled more with despair than depravity.
I wanted to report from Framingham, the country's oldest active women's prison, because I was interested in raising public awareness of the situation of women prisoners, who have long been the fastest-growing group of inmates nationwide. According to the federal Bureau of Justice, more than 100,000 women are currently behind bars in this country. But as a minority in a system that holds more than 2 million inmates, their stories are mostly unheard. Digging into the archives, I discovered that for all the changes in policy and leadership over the past century and a half, the tory of women in prison - and the debates over what we should do with them - hasn't changed much.
When MCI-Framingham first opened its doors in 1877, the prison held just three women convicted of violent crimes - and 243 imprisoned for nonviolent ones. More than half were serving time for being drunk or promiscuous. The rest were sentenced for behaviors that sound more like character traits than crimes: being ''lewd," ''stubborn," ''intemperate," or ''idle." Even the more specific charges of ''illegal cohabitation" and being ''illegally intimate" translate, of course, as living and sleeping with a man outside marriage, and they were punishable, under Massachusetts law, by prison terms of up to five years. Or rather, they were punishable for some women: Framingham's first inmates were almost exclusively first-generation immigrants, and then, as now, almost all of them were poor.
Still, the facilities at Framingham were a vast improvement over those previously available to women. While debate had long raged over whether imprisoned men were best reformed by a system of communal work or by solitary confinement, in the early 19th-century correction officials still believed, as Alexis de Tocqueville put it, that ''the reformation of girls who have contracted bad morals, is a chimera which it is useless to pursue." As a result, women were simply sent to the basements or attics of men's prisons, where they were mostly ignored. Unlike male convicts, they had no opportunities for exercise or education. Rape - at the hands of both guards and male inmates - was common. Thanks to overcrowded quarters and minimal medical care, disease often ran unchecked. ''To be a male convict in this prison would be quite tolerable," the chaplain at New York's Mount Auburn prison reported in 1833. ''But to be a female convict for any protracted period, would be worse than death."
It wasn't until 1839 that the first women's prison was opened in the grounds of the now infamous men's prison at Sing Sing, N.Y. Superintendent Eliza Farnham, a follower of the British penal reformer Elizabeth Fry, firmly believed that the rehabilitation of women prisoners was possible. At the new Mount Pleasant prison, for the first time ever in America women prisoners were taught how to read. They were also given job training, in addition to instruction in such domestic skills such as knitting and sewing.
Such reforms were not universally celebrated, however. After visiting Mount Pleasant in 1847, two Sing Sing inspectors sent the Legislature a statement opposing Farnham's emphasis on rehabilitation. ''Let prisons cease to be a terror to the depraved," they wrote, ''and the period will arrive when insurrection, incendiarism, robbery and all the evils most fatal to society and detrimental to law and order, will reign supreme." Following testimony by a disgruntled former chaplain, prison commissioners began challenging Farnham's emphasis on secular education (''a love of novel reading averse to labor," they called it) and hinted at lax discipline and further ''irregularities." Farnham was forced to resign in 1848, and two years later the prison was closed.
By the time the prison at Framingham opened on a 30-acre farm parcel almost three decades later, hopes for a reform-minded institution for women were once again ascendant. Given that women prisoners were less likely to be violent or to try to escape, the reformatory had fewer locks and bars than a typical prison for men. An almost entirely female administration was installed, along with an all-female medical team. Children up to 2 years of age were allowed to stay close to their mothers in a well-staffed nursery. A chapel, library, workroom, and school were established, and women were trained in sewing, farming, and other skills.
But once again, these policies caused consternation in the broader prison system. Some questioned the very notion that women could run a prison, and in 1882 governor Benjamin Butler threatened to cut off all funding unless a firmer (read: male) hand was brought in to run things. For a time, administrators tried to appease him by cutting back on job training and education and establishing a rigid system of punishment for even the most minor infractions. By the 1880s, children over the age of 1 were removed from the facility, and inmates' personal items were heavily restricted. By the 1890s, all forms of recreation were declared ''evil and detrimental to discipline" and removed from the women's schedule entirely.
The early 20th century saw more see-sawing between periods of reform and periods of retrenchment until Miriam Van Waters, a passionately idealistic woman with a doctorate in social work, took over the prison in 1932. Van Waters had created one of the first self-governed schools for delinquent girls, in Los Angeles, and she brought with her a strong faith in the dignity and humanity of her charges (many of whom were imprisoned for adultery and other so-called ''crimes of chastity"). ''Bars off.... Curtains in. Will bring the outside world in," she wrote upon her arrival in 1932. ''I have to go slow inside. Staff thinks I'm crazy to be crazy about pictures, colors, curtains, flowers, and not morals!"
In her first few months, she met individually with each inmate and improved the physical appearance of the place. She enlarged the nursery and provided trained nurses and volunteers to help mothers care for their children, both inside and outside the prison. She instituted a prison newspaper, several choirs and theatrical troupes, a gymnastics club, a parent education program, and classes in subjects ranging from English as a second language to cooking to current events. By 1944, more than 187 inmates - over half the prison population - were enrolled in the prison's college-level courses.
According to the prison's annual reports, in that first year alone production at the prison's farm and industrial facilities increased (despite shortened working hours), the need for solitary confinement had been eliminated, and attempts at escape had been reduced to ''practically zero." But once again not everyone approved of Van Waters's methods. In 1948, correction commissioner Elliott McDowell initiated an investigation into practices at Framingham that resulted in a 364-page document criticizing everything from the neatness of the lawn to alleged rampant homosexual activity at the prison, which took up fully half of the report. Though those assertions were unsubstantiated, in the ensuing tabloid frenzy McDowell tried to remove Van Waters from office. She weathered the storm, but within a few years of her retirement in 1957 most of the classes and groups she had established were shut down, all children were removed from the facility, and a punitive maximum-security program was instituted, ensuring that more and more women would serve time in isolation.
Today, staring up at the prison's huge red brick smokestack and seemingly endless stretches of razor-wire fence, it is hard to believe that Van Waters's Framingham ever existed. Instead of a farm, inmates are now confined to a small patch of greenery between buildings. The only job training programs available are in ''building arts" and computers (though new classes in cosmetology and culinary arts are promised for the fall). While GED classes are available, access to college-level courses is restricted to women with previous college experience. There are currently no facilities for children to spend even one night with their mothers in Framingham and, because women can make only collect calls from prison, maintaining even phone contact with their children is often impossible.
But once again there's a woman in charge - not just at Framingham, but in the state's corrections system as a whole. And once again, the possibility of some kind of reform is in the air. Kathleen M. Dennehy was named acting commissioner in December 2003, following the upheaval caused by the brutal murder of former priest John J. Geoghan by a fellow inmate at the maximum-security Souza-Baranowski Correction Center in Shirley the previous August. As Public Safety Secretary Edward A. Flynn told the Associated Press when she officially became commissioner four months later, Dennehy ''understands the system, knows what's right with it, knows what's wrong with it, and has a plan to do something about it."
In March, the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts released a report outlining the multiple problems women inmates face maintaining even the most basic contact with their children. And this summer, the Female Offender Review Panel that Dennehy - herself a former superintendent at Framingham - convened last December will release its own report. There are questions about the level of access granted to members of the panel, which includes specialists from both inside and outside the system. Dennehy hasn't promised compliance with all of their recommendations, but she has repeatedly and publicly stated her intention to shake up the system.
''I call it culture busting," she told me in a recent telephone interview. ''It's around values. Cultural changes need to take place. Inmates should have the expectation that we have fundamentally fair practices. People have to be held accountable, from the inmates up to the commissioner, and that's a paradigm shift for this agency."
To this end, Dennehy has already rewritten the systemwide disciplinary code, inmate grievance procedure, and inmate classification structure. And her insistence on punishing correction officers who mistreat inmates suggests that she isn't afraid to take on the powerful correction officers' union.
Some of the reaction to her policies sounds familiar to anyone acquainted with the history of correction in Massachusetts and beyond. ''Citizens should begin investigating and fighting Commissioner Dennehy until the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts is aware of this woman's blatant disregard for public safety," one writer told the editor of the Lowell Sun in April 2004, shortly after Dennehy fired a supervisor at Souza-Baranowski for using excessive force on an inmate. Given such resistance, it is too early to tell what kinds of changes Dennehy will be able to secure. The women of MCI-Framingham - and the wider community they will someday be released to - will have to wait and see.
Cristina Rathbone is a journalist living in Boston. Her book ''A World Apart: Women, Prison, and Life Behind Bars" has just been published by Random House.