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Lamenting the Greater Fall: 19th Century Prison Reform and The Women's Prison Association Records


An entry from Isaac T. Hopper's logbook of released prison inmatesAn entry from Isaac T. Hopper's logbook of released prison inmates

November 27, 1846: "William Haynes, a native of Ireland, has been in this country about two years and six months.  He was sent to Blackwells Island three months for selling pernicious books."

December 30, 1846: "John H. Gilman, 41 years old, a native of Vermont, was convicted in this city for forgery in passing counterfeit money and sentenced to Sing Sing for seven years and three months."

January 22, 1847: "Cecelia Elizabeth Doremus, a native of this City in the eighteenth year of her age was convicted of grand larceny ... and sent to Sing Sing for two years."

These entries are excerpted from the records of Isaac T. Hopper, and describe the circumstances of Isaac T. Hopper., Digital ID 1262770, New York Public LibraryIsaac T. Hopper, co-founder of
the Prison Association of New York.
individuals who sought refuge from New York's penitentiaries and asylums.  Hopper was a Quaker abolitionist and notable prison reformer who co-founded the Prison Association of New York (PANY), a mid-19th century advocacy group and resource center for formerly incarcerated persons. 

Re-Imagining the Penitentiary

Prior to the PANY's inception, the American penitentiary experienced a revolution of conscience.  Reformation of the prisoner's soul, as opposed to punishment of body, became the heart of the early 19th century penitentiary's mission.  Newly enlightened prison builders believed improvement of physical health, strict religious observance—even contemplative silence—would help prisoners see the error in their ways, and emerge "changed people."  Imposing penitentiaries were built, grand edifices to be the models of American fortitude and modernity.  European travellers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens were among the first eager tourists to view the dazzling structures. 

Two popular and opposing methods of prison reform soon emerged: the "Auburn"—or "silent"—system, where prisoners worked together in (surprise!) silent groups throughout the day, and the "Pennsylvania"—or "Separate"—system, where prisoners were kept in constant solitary confinement.  Blackwells Island., Digital ID 809445, New York Public LibraryBlackwell's Island Penitentiary (now Roosevelt Island),
erected 1832, was modeled on the Auburn system
The infamous Panopticon model—which implied unrelenting surveillance of prisoners—was developed by prison design maven Jeremy Bentham for the Separate system.  

Consideration of the merits of each system was a popular source of early 19th century debate, exemplified by this impassioned essay by a Massachusetts man.  The participation of average citizens and otherwise apolitical cultural icons, such as authors Caroline Kirkland and Catherine Sedgwick, reveals what a hot topic the prison reform question was, comparable to today's debates over universal healthcare or housing rights issues.  Nothing like a squabble over penal reform to get the blood pumping! 

Of course, it wasn't long before accusations of prisoner abuse began to marr the reputations of both systems.  From reports of Bentham's borderline sadistic torture of inmates to accounts of female inmates' sexual subordination, by the 1830s the American penitentiary was no longer the model for compassionate rehabilitation.  It was from these circumstances that the Prison Association of New York and the Women's Prison Association (WPA) arose.  The two groups promoted improved prison conditions and provided support for recently released inmates in New York City.   

Prison Reform and the Female Inmate

The WPA began as the "Female Department" of the PANY in 1845.  The organization attended to the specific needs of incarcerated women, advocating for separate women's prison quarters and female matrons.  The WPA also aimed to reform the female convict through strict religious observance and domestic training, as a result of which, they hoped, "the girls" would find plummy jobs as housekeepers, nannies, and seamstresses.   Hudson River Scenery,Female Convicts, Sing Sing Prison.,Female Convicts, seated outside of Sing Sing Prison., Digital ID 06SCV, New York Public LibraryFemale convicts seated outside Sing Sing prisonFrom its inception, the Female Department operated a Home where former convicts lived, communed, and worked; matrons would observe and mentor the residents until they were declared fit to re-enter society.  But at the Home, it was "shape up or ship out": the Department's matrons weren't joking about reforming the souls of "fallen women."  These early do-gooders—the reformers of what would be coined as the Progressive Era—didn't call themselves feminists, though many contemporaneous women's rights advocates supported their work.  Rather, they championed what they called the feminine: a celebration of and respect for women's "separate sphere."  Women's Prison Association Of New York, "The Isaac T. Hopper Home," Incorporated 1845., Digital ID 805072, New York Public LibraryThe Isaac T. Hopper Home

WPA members—many of whom later subscribed to the prim social purity movement—lamented the female convict's "greater fall."  They argued these women not only suffered the rule of law, but were also accused of betraying their sex by virtue of their perceived promiscuity while imprisoned. 

The 1853 Female Department formally severed itself from the PANY to become the autonomous Women's Prison Association of New York.  This separation was due in part, perhaps, to the Female Department's literal belief in the woman's separate sphere.  Today, the organization has passed compelling legislation, advocated for the children of imprisoned mothers, and instituted programs supportive of family reunification and alternatives to incarceration.  The WPA currently operates three other facilities in addition to the Isaac T. Hopper Home on Second Ave in New York City.  NYPL's Manuscripts & Archives Division holds the Association's records.

The WPA records were housed in the basement of the Isaac T. Hopper Home until 1985The WPA records were housed in the basement of the Isaac T. Hopper Home until 1985

The Records of the WPA

The WPA records consist of correspondence, minutes, reports, legislative bills, project files, client case files, financial records, photographs, and printed matter.  The material held in the 148 boxes are in poor condition due both to age and poor storage prior to their accession by the NYPL in 1989.  Stored in a damp basement, unfortunately moldy, the records are fragile and access is limited.  The client case files contain sensitive personal information, and are restricted to researchers for 70 years from their creation date. These images show the WPA records as they were transferred from the water-damaged basement to NYPLThese images show the WPA records as they were transferred from the water-damaged basement to NYPL  The best place to begin one's research on the WPA is with the Annual Reports available in the Microforms Reading Room.  The reports are a boon to researchers who require clear information about the WPA's history without the insalubrious effects of mold spore inhalation.

If I've whet your appetite for further reading on the Women’s Prison Association and 19th century prison reform, check out these titles for suggested further reading:



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thank you!

thank you for this insightful article and list of resources for further research! the history (and current events) of women's incarceration is a highly under-reported and under-researched area of interest.

I took a couple classes on

I took a couple classes on prison histories and the reform movements during undergrad and both times we touched only briefly on women in prison. As the above comment points out, women in prison continues to be a largely ignored subject. I wonder if there are articles/documents pertaining to women's groups and the current prison abolition movement. Hopefully articles such as this and the availablity of the above mentioned resources will aid in research of this overlooked topic.

finding aid?

It would be useful if the finding aid was scanned and put up online to facilitate more use of this fantastic collection.

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