Presentation focuses on female inmates

By Sam Wildow -

PIQUA — No women in history were forgotten this month, including women in prison.

Women’s History Month continued at Edison State Community College with a presentation on women in prison this week.

Adjunct Professor Carin Benning conducted the presentation, explaining that there are gaps in the history of women in prison due to a lack of history being done on them.

Early in U.S. history, female inmates were kept in the same prisons as men, but in different rooms or in a different part of the building. Perceived gender roles played in a part in the housework that the female prisoners were made to do, including cleaning the prisons and washing the clothes of the male inmates.

In the 1830s, the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus became one of the first state penitentiaries in the U.S. to create a separate building for female inmates.

Another one of the first female prisons, New York’s Mount Pleasant Female Prison, used tactics of straitjackets, gagging, solitary confinement, and “shower baths” on the female inmates. Benning defined shower baths” as “like water-boarding, but the whole person” in order to simulate the feeling of drowning.

As more female prisons emerged, some of them had religious aspects to them in how they sought to reform women. “A lot of them were ran by Catholic nuns,” Benning said, also citing the Indiana Women’s Prison, which Quakers operated.

Then, during the reformatory stage of female incarceration between 1870-1935, Benning said that female inmates were treated as childlike and vulnerable.

Benning also explained that, at times, gender roles also contributed to heftier sentences for women. “Back in that time, women were held on a pedestal,” she said. “You had farther to fall.”

For example, Benning cited the Indiana Women’s Prison again, explaining women received longer sentences for minor crimes like theft and also indeterminate sentences, whereas men might spend the night in jail before being released. The indeterminate sentences had the potential of lengthening a woman’s stay due to her behavior in prison.

“This kind of set the foundation in terms of how you reform women,” Benning said. “Some did a better job than others.”

At the California Institute for Women, established in 1933, Benning said that they had the inmates live in cottages. They had the ability to move around at the site of the institution and were given the opportunity to engage in learning life skills. However, with indeterminate sentences, Benning said, “You might just clean your life away.”

From 1935 to current-day standards, the reformatory stage of female incarceration ended and returned to more of the custodial model of incarceration, which is the idea that people are imprisoned to protect society. Female incarceration became more like male incarceration.

“Women are treated more similar to males,” Benning said.

Benning also briefly discussed the popular Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” which was originally based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, who spent a year in a federal prison for a drug crime.

“A lot of those things are pretty accurate here and there,” Benning said about “Orange is the New Black,” noting that the show does sensationalize things. “In terms of women forming families in prison, that’s true.” Women are also more likely to be a part of same-sex relationships in prison versus men, although men do as well. Benning said that over 50 percent of women will be a part of a same-sex relationship while in prison.

Prison rates have also been increasing for female inmates while resources are still limited.

“Women incarceration rates have skyrocketed,” Benning said.

According to the Sentencing Project, the rate of women becoming incarcerated has been increasing at a rate of 50 percent higher than men since 1980. In 1980, there were approximately 13,206 women incarcerated. In 2015, there were approximately 11,495 women incarcerated, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

Factors that Benning cited include gender roles possibly becoming less prevalent, the feminization of poverty and women committing crimes of survival, the heroin epidemic, and more.

While the rates for female incarceration have been increasing, more men than women are incarcerated, with approximately 1,371,879 men incarcerated in 2015. There has been an overall 500 percent increase in incarceration in the U.S. in the last 40 years.

Benning also said that as women tend to be the primary care source for their children, “collateral consequences are huge for them.” Collateral consequences are laws that disenfranchise citizens convicted of felonies, such as job restrictions and states restricting voting rights. According to the Sentencing Project, there are 12 states in the U.S. that do not let convicted felons vote even after they complete their prison and parole terms. The Sentencing Project states that there are currently 6.1 million Americans unable to vote due to their felony status.

“There are definite racial implications as well,” Benning said.

Benning said that there is an over-representation of racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. prison system. According to the Sentencing Project, the national ratio of black inmates to white inmates was 5.1:1 in 2014. In Ohio, that ratio was up slightly by 5.6:1. While African Americans make up approximately 13 percent of the overall population according to the 2010 census, they are incarcerated at a rate of 1,408 per 100,000 people nationally. White Americans are imprisoned at a rate of 275 people per 100,000 people while making up approximately 72 percent of the population. Hispanic imprisonment occurs at a rate of 378 people per 100,000 people while making up 17 percent of the population.

Women are less likely than men to receive the death penalty. If a woman does receive the death penalty, though, she is more likely to be of a lower socioeconomic status along with being a part of a racial and/or ethnic minority.

“We see these things are increasing, and the big thing is what do you do with them,” Benning said.

Benning suggested ideas for more training and resources along with not sending released inmates back to the same environment that they came from. She also noted that most Americans may not want their taxes spent on the prison system.

“There’s no easy solution,” Benning said.

By Sam Wildow

Reach Sam Wildow at or (937) 451-3336

Reach Sam Wildow at or (937) 451-3336