By Anne Garner, Curator, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health
How do the experiences of the inmates of Orange Is the New Black’s fictional Litchfield Prison differ from those of incarcerated women a century before? “The Modern Way,” a pamphlet published in 1913 by the New York State Women’s Prison Association, offers a snapshot of the conditions in New York State prisons one hundred years ago. Today, as Netflix drops season three of the series, we thought it would be instructive to have a closer look at this remarkable feminist pamphlet, produced by New York’s oldest advocacy group for women.
As with Orange Is the New Black, “The Modern Way” begins by telescoping the faces and stories of individual prisoners—in this case, the residents of an unnamed “Workhouse” 20 minutes from New York City’s Fifth Avenue.
It is 1913. There’s Maggie, “a strong sturdy woman of forty,”1 in and out of prison for public drunkenness for the last two years. She plans to drink again as soon as she’s released, even as she’s resigned to serving more jail time as a consequence. Jennie, age 37, has been in and out of Workhouse for two decades, incarcerated for the same cause. When interviewed, she says she’s done with jail. But without the guidance of a rehabilitating hospital, she claims she can’t stay away from the saloon.
And then there’s Mary, described by the warden as “one of the best dispositioned women [she] ever knew.” She’s the mother hen of the group, “stopping to comfort a sobbing prisoner, now scolding a vigorously quarrelsome one.” This model inmate keeps a medal in her cell, earned the day she was working on Riker’s Island in 1904 and brought in three drowning passengers from the steamship PS General Slocum (two survived). When interviewed, she’s back at the Workhouse again, after a trip to the saloon.2
What binds together these three inmates is the impossibility of creating a new identity once they’ve served their sentences—which may remind OITNB fans of inmate Tasty’s plight. As Mary says, “A girl can’t do it once she has gone wrong. The plain clothes fellows remember you and they follow you up. There isn’t any use trying.”3
In 1912, New York State committed 20,616 women to correctional institutions.4 Unlike contemporary men’s prisons, prisons established for women in the late 19th and early 20th century were not philosophically bent towards reform.5 In most cases, as with the unnamed Workhouse featured in the pamphlet, prisons for women had no chaplain, physician, or teacher, unlike their male counterparts. Medical care was especially scarce. The Workhouse, a facility that accommodated 15,818 prisoners in 1911, had only thirty beds available for sick patients.6 With resources so limited, the Workhouse routinely discharged hundreds of women with no healthcare at all.
The inequitable treatment of male and female prisoners is a particular sticking point for the authors of “The Modern Way,” who are dismayed by the sexism inherent in the current penal system:
No crime which a man may commit excludes him from readjustment, rehabilitation. Alcoholism and immorality unless excessive are ignored and condoned, but the conviction by the Courts of a girl charged with loitering or a woman charged with intoxication places a ban upon her, ostracizes her from Society, is remembered against her through life no matter how correct her after life may be [italics theirs].7
They argue that female inmates need a setting hospitable to rehabilitation, a place “far-removed from temptation and made attractive by healthy employment and friendly supervision of [the prisoners’] moral and physical well-being.”
By 1908, the Women’s Prison Association had successfully lobbied for 315 public acres for such a place, the State Farm for Women Misdemeanants, in Valatie, New York.8 The site was planned in accordance with the early 20th-century trend of cottage-designed prisons, which placed inmates in small cottages scattered across a rural setting. The cottages were set up like small homes, with a dining room, kitchen, and sitting room. Household tasks were divided among the women. The idea was to engender self-esteem in the inmates, who then might be better positioned to take on these roles once released.9
Bordered by the foothills of the Adirondacks, the Berkshires, the Matteawan Mountains, and the Catskills and Helderbergs, State Farm in Valatie offered tillable land, ample space, and a healthy environment. At completion, the farm was projected to have 27 buildings on the cottage plan, and would stress rehabilitation and careful supervision by an all-female staff (except for typically male roles, i.e. leadership roles like warden). Prisoners over 30 who had been convicted five times in two years qualified for accommodation.10
When “The Modern Way” went to print, two cottages were ready for occupancy. Fifteen hundred New York women were eligible. According to the pamphlet’s writers, every farm implement had been purchased, and the grounds were populated with horses, cattle, and poultry.11 And yet, the pamphlet’s frustrated authors argued, the land remained vacant. Appeals to two different governors and the Senate Finance Committee to fund the opening of the cottages all stalled.12 At the close of “The Modern Way” we are left wondering what happened to State Farm. Was it ever operational?
The answer was yes. State Farm at Valatie was completed in 1914. But in total, the Columbia County facility accommodated only 146 inmates. These were mostly white women between the ages of 30 and 60, accused of public drunkenness. Funding was always scarce. By 1918, all the inmates had been paroled, and the grounds were turned over to a treatment center for women suffering from venereal disease.13 The efforts of the Women’s Prisoners’ Association to install State Farm as a viable alternative to the Workhouse model appears to have been only successful in the short term. Nevertheless, “The Modern Way” captures an important moment in the history of the Women’s Prison Association of New York, an organization still very active in lobbying for the rights of women prisoners today.
1. Women’s Prison Association of New York. “The Modern Way.” New York: The Association, [1913.] p. 14.
2. Women’s Prison Association of New York, p. 3-4.
3. Women’s Prison Association of New York, p. 9.
4. Women’s Prison Association of New York, p. 15.
5. Banks, Cyndi. Women in Prison: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003. p. 36.
6. Women’s Prison Association of New York, p. 12.
7. Women’s Prison Association of New York, p. 14.
8. Women’s Prison Association of New York, p. 16.
9. Dodge, L. (2005). Cottage system. In M. Bosworth (Ed.), Encyclopedia of prisons & correctional facilities. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. Accessed at http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412952514.n77 on June 8, 2015. For more on the cottage model, see “Preparing Delinquent Women for the New Citizenship,” by Dr. Mary B. Harris, in The Delinquent Girl and Woman. New York: National Committee on Prisons and Prison Labor, 1919.
10. Women’s Prison Association of New York, p. 18 and Dodge, 2005.
11. Women’s Prison Association of New York, p. 22.
12. Women’s Prison Association of New York, p. 20-22.
13. Banks, 37.