Bodies in a Zone of Indistinction: a history of the Biomedicalization of Pregnancy in Prison


Sketch of Scientific Research and Medicine in Women’s Prisons



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Sketch of Scientific Research and Medicine in Women’s Prisons

The shifting perceptions of female criminals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries helped to spur different conceptualizations for the way their time was spent in detention. In the 1800s, female inmates were commonly associated with feeblemindedness, irrationality, licentiousness, and moral depravity; and these stigmas slowed the fomentation of social movements towards health care reform and other practices in women’s prisons.8 However, with the rise of the Progressive Era, reformers felt prompted by new discoveries in science and medicine to make changes in the prison system through empirically-driven research. In tracing the relationship between scientific applications in the penal system, current efforts in prenatal care, the unshackling movement, and prison nurseries can be situated within a long lineage of attempts at prison reformation in the United States.

During the early 1800s, women simply committed fewer violent crimes that warranted incarceration in state prison systems than men and had little room allocated for them when they were placed in such facilities.9 Rather, according to historian L. Mara Dodge, they often endured shorter stays in “local county or city jails, workhouses, or houses of correction.”10 Still, when they were imprisoned, women were frequently housed in quarters not equipped for residence- such as attics or basements. Not only were they relegated to poor, cramped housing situations, they were also often forced to perform domestic chores for the male inmates- such as darning stockings, sewing, cooking, and cleaning.11 Then, as what happens currently in prisons throughout the United States, prison guards would often sexually assault inmates, and cases of illegitimate birth were widespread.12 Moreover, in some states like Indiana, women inmates and their prison guards engaged in elaborate underground systems of exchanging sexual favors for special privileges (as they still do today).13

Living in poor, filthy conditions in prison and becoming socialized into a harsh living environment, inmates often acquired the stigma of being labeled “fallen” women, sinfully licentious, depraved, and incapable of reforming their ways.14 Considering the influence of Victorian ideals of femininity as “piety, purity, and submissiveness” as well as a lack of sexual desire, notions of female criminality falling from that pedestal were common during the 1800s, and women found it difficult if not impossible to regain their social status once they returned from their prison sentence.15 Prison, thus, was seen as a holding facility of immorality, a place to keep women separate from “civilized” society; and as such, Bitton claims that these institutions stigmatized convicts even more heavily for their crimes against society than they do today.16

What was considered scientific research at the time also furthered concepts of female criminals as defective degenerates; and through the disciplines of criminology and penology, women criminals were observed, measured, and categorized by their supposed biological disposition towards immorality. In 1895, The Female Offender—the work of Italian criminologists Cesare Lombroso and William Ferrero—did much to classify this population as biologically determined atavistic throwbacks to lower forms of humans.17 Characterizing them as masculine, violent, hairy, short, libidinous, Lombroso’s view mirrored ideas among general audiences in the United States, concerned about potential for social infiltration of racial and moral degeneration associated with prison populations—most of whom tended to be African Americans or immigrants to their country.18 According to L. Mara Dodge, similar sexist research continued even in the 1950s, as Otto Pollak’s The Criminality of Women popularized ideas that women were more practiced than men at lying and masterminding criminal activities (as evidenced by their ability to hide their menstruation every month and fake orgasms).19

Although a new crop of women researchers in the social sciences and other fields challenged such unsubstantiated research, the claims made by these scientists were not easily erased in the public imagination. Accepting women into doctoral level programs in the 1890s, the University of Chicago as well as other progressive schools in the northeast fostered a number of feminist-minded criminologists, social theorists, social workers, lawyers, and physicians.20 Unlike the generation of women activists before them, they had greater access to education, and the combination of their work in advocacy and research fed into the larger Progressive Era movement to use science and medicine as a means of ordering transformation and reorganizing structures within penal institutions.21

Frances Kellor, trained in criminal sociology, conducted a number of studies on women inmates at the turn of the century. Replicating Lombroso’s studies, she detected many of his methodological flaws including a bias that could easily conflate the physical attributes of particular ethnic groups with those of criminals. Ultimately refuting many of his claims to biological determinism of female criminality, Kellor took an environmental approach, which diminished the role of biology in predicting criminality, and considered the “social, mental, and emotional determinants of crime.”22 In addition, she conducted a number of anthropometric tests, interviewed prisoners on their life histories, read institutional reports on prisoners, and talked with prison matrons to learn more about individual prisoners.23 While she was innovative for her time in acknowledging the role that socioeconomic status played in female criminality, Kellor, like many of her colleagues, still took a very individualistic approach to crime that did not fully acknowledge larger structural barriers to financial independence, educational resources, and gender equality.24

Katharine Bement Davis also furthered the study of female criminology within prisons; and as the director of Bedford Hills, the State of New York’s third reformatory, she conducted intensive research on women’s sex lives before their incarceration and encouraged other researchers to do similar psychological and anthropological studies there as well.25 With funding from John D. Rockefeller, she supervised the establishment the Bureau’s Laboratory of Social Hygiene, a psychological clinic dedicating to eliminating the “social evil” of prostitution.26 Blaming society for the multivariate causes of female criminality—including low moral standing of men, meager educational, poor sanitation, crowding in cities, low economic conditions, and few educational opportunities—she too expanded the list of environmental factors to complicate commonly-held views on the origins of crime. 27

In addition, physicians such as Dr. Edith Spaulding also focused on the etiological causes of criminality among women by serving as the resident physician at a reformatory at Framingham, Massachusetts and studying antisocial behavior among psychopathic criminals.28 Disagreeing with Lombroso’s hypothesis that criminals suffered from feeblemindedness, she concluded that mental deficiency and low intelligence not pervasive among all or even most of female prisoners and did not act as a causal factor in instigating crime.29 Rather, as historian Estelle Freedman notes Dr. Spaulding found through her research that, “Environmental factors, including poverty, parental death, incest, and either prostitution or alcoholism at home appeared in 45 percent of the cases.”30 In this manner, her work also problematized simplistic, hereditary etiologies of criminality and led to new ways of conceptualizing and treating criminality.

The effects of scientific research, social science, and law greatly altered the treatment of criminals during the early 1900s, and researchers such as Frances Kellor, Katharine Bement Davis, and Dr. Edith Spaulding helped to shift focus from biological causes to social causes of criminality. While they were not always able to identify larger structural causes of structural inequality that contributed to criminality, these women were highly cognizant of the dire socioeconomic conditions that many prisoners faced in the free world, disputed theories of criminal heritability, and detailed more nuanced accounts of environmental factors correlated with criminality. Finally, their work provided early contributions to a vast amount of research that is still conducted upon women prison populations today.

Although the inculcation of norms of proper femininity remained central components in prison life, Samuel Pillsbury explains how the medical model became critical to further Progressive Era ideology and rehabilitation programs for criminals:

Crime was described as a disease suffered by the offender; what followed

conviction should be its cure. The offender was not a sinner but a sick person,

a patient in the care of the physician state. In its strongest form, idealist

ideology of the period rejected the notion of criminal responsibility, arguing

that the crime was an act beyond the control of the criminal and that the attempt

to apportion punishment according to its severity was not only hopeless, but a

throwback to the primitive retributivism of earlier times.31


This method thus called for a more individualized treatment of the prison, in which not only the judge would help to determine one’s sentence, but parole officers and social scientists would also determine the manner in which a sentence would be enforced.32 Although this method was never fully realized during the early 1900s, such idealistic policy formed according to the best recommendations of social science and medicine was highly indicative of the Progressives’ sense of optimism and their deep faith in science.33

Moreover, the emerging research from social sciences as well as from other fields, strengthened the idea that it was possible to “civilize” women inmates. Detailing this shift, L. Mara Dodge explains:

This emerging medical model embodied a faith in scientific classification,

psychiatric diagnosis, intelligence testing, and eugenics doctrines.

Progressive Era reformatory administrators represented a new generation

of college-educated, professional women, who viewed their charges not so

much as “sisters,” but as difficult clients in need of segregation, medical

and psychiatric treatment, educational and vocational training, and, at

times, sterilization and permanent institutionalization.34
As the first wave of feminists gathered in strength, and the Progressive Era (roughly 1900-1920) swept the nation, new research shifted perceptions of female criminality as well. Instead of seeing criminals as irreversibly “defective degenerates,” some women reformers began to view these women criminals as “poor unfortunates,” capable of receiving moralizing lessons to teach them middle-class (Christian) values of domesticity; and they retained the hope that these deficient women could be trained to engage with society as “proper” ladies.35 With the gradual establishment of separate women’s prison from approximately 1870 to 1900, new spaces to practice such ideals emerged.36

In her well-known book on the history of women’s prison reform, Their Sisters’ Keepers, Freedman provides the following summary of the moralizing component of prison reform:

The term “prison reform” has come to refer to efforts to improve prison

conditions, but it has a more basic meaning as well: the use of prisons to

re-form, rather than merely to detain, criminals. Advocates of prison

reform in the early nineteenth century favored the establishment of prison

which, through their influence on prisoners’ behavior, would encourage

repentance. The penitentiary, they believed, best combined the goals of

punishing criminals and re-forming their characters so that they would not

break the law again.37


Responding to the call to transform their prison systems, some penitentiaries in the 1930s through the mid 1950s were built on the feminizing ideal of cottages, in which women could practices domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning, farming, and sewing in the comfort of home-like settings.38 Allocated a small room, each inmate was expected to perform certain household duties under the supervision of the cottage warden.39 However, this system also provided an opportunity for unprecedented surveillance, and as the cottage model became further systematized, inmates were cited for a number of petty occurrences such as failure to drink coffee and eat toast at breakfast or sneaking extra pieces of cake, as well as major infractions such as fighting and possessing contraband items.40

Despite their initial success, the reformatory models eventually became more prison-like in nature. Filled to capacity, efforts to educate women in middle-class values and Protestant work ethics became more challenging as more women were sentenced to re-formation.41 As state budgets tightened, correctional models became prevalent as they offered more affordable methods to house larger populations, without the costly goal of character reformation. Moreover, the perceptions of women inmates had again shifted towards one of hardened criminals, incapable of reformation after all.42 Still, as Dana Britton notes, reformatory ideology “continues to occupy an ingrained, if ambivalent, space in our thinking about women prisons.”43

Although scientific research has continued throughout prisons in the United States, approaches in social science to understanding the etiology of crime have fallen out of vogue as a means to reform prison systems. According to Samuel Pillsbury, in 1964 the Supreme Court “abandoned the deference to social science expertise which it had displayed earlier and undertook a careful review of penal decisionmaking.”44 The previously-used rehabilitation model sought to rehabilitate prisoners from their fallen state and allowed some discretion on the part of prison administrators for determining prison sentences. However, since many advocates believed that such determinations were highly subjective and biased, this model was eventually replaced by determinate sentencing, which provided more strict guidelines for lengths of incarceration.45

Still, among several other changes during the 1970s and 1980s, since Estelle v. Gamble in 1976, lawsuits filed under the violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments have brought about additional health care protocol for all prisoners requiring medical interventions, including women.46 Now, in correctional institutions operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, women are able to access health care services such as immunizations, STI testing, pap smears, and pregnancy tests, according to certain guidelines established by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology.47 In state prisons, however, access to health care remains varied and ambiguous.48 According to Jenni Vainik, many women are still “routinely denied the support necessary to achieve healthy pregnancies and maintain relationships with their children in prison,” and research indicates, “inmates often are unable to access care, available services are inadequate, and providers are insensitive to female inmates’ emotional needs.”49 Moreover, despite limited developments, women’s health care still lags behind services provided to men in prison, and women often lack the legal representation necessary to demand greater access to care.50

In this brief sketch, it becomes clear that the ways in which science and medicine interacted with the United States’ penal system were highly contingent on cultural views of the time towards criminality. While scientific efforts during the Progressive Era brought hope that fallen women could be restored to society, the moralizing campaigns of biological determinism and the eugenics movement cannot be forgotten as well. Moreover, while women social scientists gained traction in challenging past ideas of hereditarianism, they often ignored the systematic barriers of racism, sexism, and classism that many women inmates experienced during this time. While science did much to effect prison reform during the Progressive Era, its decline in the 1960s is also indicative of shifting perceptions of criminality, and current views towards criminality seem to indicate a much more conservative stance on the ability of institutions to reform prisoners. However, as scientific research, social work, and medical initiatives continue in the prison, the rehabilitative model still holds some sway among medical practitioners and political activists interested in the health and wellbeing of female prisoners.





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