Fry's Legacy Leaves a Stain on Women's Characters
by Clare Barstow, HMP Cookham Wood
They say, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" and in history this is often truer than elsewhere. A GCSE knowledge often gives one an incredibly biased viewpoint as one deals in generalisations and in black and white, often omitting the shades of grey.
This cannot be more valid than when examining the life of Elizabeth Fry who is perceived by many as a paragon of virtue in her role as a reformer of women's prisons. Sadly though, there was a darker side to the Quaker's motives and this has cast a long shadow under which all female offenders must now sit.
Whilst the Quakers as a religious group have contributed a lot towards the peace movement, against slavery and through the creation of soup societies and schools to feed and educate the poor, their moral viewpoints often allowed a condescending attitude towards criminals. Whereas this may not be true amongst Quakers today, it certainly was in the 19th Century and this contributed greatly towards the old fashioned attitudes under which women prisoners are still held.
I have no intention of undermining the valuable work done by Fry and the Quakers in alleviating the squalid conditions under which many female prisoners lived, However, it was the abhorrence with which the Quakers viewed them, being 'shocked and sickened by the blaspheming, fighting, dram-drinking half naked women'. Such behaviour was frowned upon as being decidedly unfeminine, being more acceptable amongst male prisoners. The women were described as savages and wretches, going against the social control under which most were governed in this overtly patriarchal society.
Whilst the Quakers did much to improve the overcrowding and impoverishment of the females in Newgate which was truly laudable, their desire to impose a religious order in the management of women was merely a form of indoctrination of those in a captive situation. The benefits for the children who stayed with their mothers at Newgate were extended by introducing teaching which afforded some basic education. Yet the belief that their mothers were no more than 'miserable creatures' permitted the attitude that. they were little more than animals at a zoo who could be manipulated in whatever way they chose. Described as 'ignorant scum', they were condemned for singing and dancing and dressing up in men's clothes, this. going against lady-like behaviour. Elizabeth Fry wished to impose habits of order, sobriety and industry with the aid of religious instruction to render them docile and peaceable whilst in prison and respectable when they left it.
These goals were achieved through a regime of education, scripture reading, work and orderliness. Idleness was seen as the work of the devil. A set of rules was imposed which prohibited begging, the use of bad words, swearing, card playing, the reading of plays and novels and the singing of immoral songs. Constant respect and deference to elders and betters were expected at all times. Monitors were appointed to ensure the rules were enforced. The women were to be wooed over to the new rules by kind words and gentle soothing, seeing, them as willing subjects upon whom they could experiment their form of moral eugenics. Members of the Ladies Association claimed victory by transforming the women from drunkenness to sobriety, riot to order, clamour to quietness and obscenity to decency. They were changed into diligent workers employed in patchwork, needlework, spinning and knitting. Wearing clean plain uniforms, they were viewed by invited visitors as being part of a miraculous experiment, very similar to the goldfish bowl visits by officials today.
The women had to remain silent at all times whilst working, thus enforcing the denial of freedom of expression under which they were kept in line. Such opinions are held today when often foreign nationals are viewed as savages for being more vocal in their expressions than others. It is considered unseemly for women to swear, thus they are far more likely to be placed on report for it than men are. Any form of rebellion against the rules is judged more harshly, hence women are twice as likely to be placed on report than men and far more likely to receive a harsher punishment as a result. Decency is still seen as important and in some prisons, women are not allowed to walk around in a dressing gown, even first thing in the morning to take a shower, as this is viewed as unseemly.
Fry was praised as a pious middle class woman acting as a saviour to aid the depraved unwomanly creatures who were transformed through religious instruction. A fear of the fires of hell was used as another control upon these women. Whilst her work in introducing cleanliness and in health care cannot be disputed, at what cost to the individual liberty of the women was this achieved? Nowadays, it is harder for women to gain some freedom of expression when such a moral legacy has been imposed on them for the past 180 years. Talking was strictly forbidden and often women were made to work totally isolated in their cell. It has often been considered that women are less vocal than men in raising their objections against ill-treatment in prison - no wonder when we have been silenced for so long. The additional control over access to children is another way in which women today are held in check. As primary carers, any form of punishment for standing up for what is right brings with it the threat of loss of visits and- money for phone cards which reduces communication with the family. Also added days means a longer absence away from the family unit.
Even when working in isolation, the women were constantly under surveillance to check if they tried to shirk their responsibilities. it is this feeling of being constantly watched which permeates the female establishments of today. Any form of unfeminine behaviour can be logged on your Page 16 which provides a record of the way you conduct yourself in prison and can be used against you should you be eligible for parole. Bridewells which were 18th Century Houses of Correction, were seen as houses of labour and the majority of women were engaged in textile production. Women were punished for not working hard by the loss of a meal, thus enforcing co-operation through hunger. Today women are punished for not working hard by being confined behind the door for a period of time and loss of wages or private spends. Although the women in the Bridewells were clothed, fed and had decent bedding, this was little reward for the slave labour they had to perform. Today, contract work for outside firms is available in most female establishments but the wages are still low, averaging at £10 per week. With the onset of the industrial revolution, most of the idle poor, vagrants, prostitutes and itinerant labourers were imprisoned as a way of gaining cheap labour to perform some of the menial tasks such as oakum picking and textile weaving to ensure a well ordered capitalist society.
Magdalen House was set up in the middle of the 18th Century for the voluntary confinement of penitent prostitutes who were kept on a sparse diet, subjected to religious instruction and required to labour in solitude. This enforced the Protestant work ethic, also a product of mercantile capitalism where hard labour was seen as a form of moral redemption. The licentious behaviour of prostitutes was universally condemned, often by those who secretly used their services, and this immorality was often punished with harsh terms in prison. Mission Houses were also set up to help fallen women Yet some were closed down as they were secretly being run as brothels. Even today, prostitutes are still being locked up for non payment of fines and are condemned in the system for not finding traditional employment. Today most of the work in women's prisons still involves traditional areas such as sewing knitting and production line work.
In Fry's ‘Observations on the Siting, Superintendence and Government of Female Prisoners’ she sets down a moral code under which women should be governed. She warns of the dangers and misery of vice, the beauty of holiness and the advantages of honesty, sobriety, industry and virtue. Today a woman caught possessing hooch, home made alcohol, in her cell is likely to receive a far harsher punishment than men. I know of cases where a man has had two bucketfulls of hooch and received a £2 fine whereas a woman will be given loss of days, a fine and cellular confinement for possessing half the amount. Similarly I have seen a far higher tolerance of the smoking of cannabis in male establishments than female where governors will condemn another breach of social control. I have spoken to officers in male dispersals who are often quite content to have a smoke and drink with the lads, replicating outside pub and laddish behaviour. In certain parts of the country it is still frowned upon if a woman goes into a public house on her own as the woman then is invading traditional male territory and must only be there for the purpose of sexually entrapping a male.
Fry viewed women as incapable of being involved in their own transformation but were now conceptualised as objects to be processed through an engine of reform. She proposed constant surveillance so that matrons could be able to see all the prisoners whilst at work, in recreation and to overhear them during the night. This supervision still carries on today, whether officers are looking through the door hatch and paroling cell corridors during the night and in the morning, sitting in the dining room, in the work room, on visits or in education. Female prisoners are allowed less independence and social responsibility over their own lives than men. Whilst surveillance does exist in male establishments, it is less intrusive than in females. This is also prevelant during cell searches, where the strip searches are viewed by many women as visual rape and is particularly sensitive at certain times of the female cycle.
Fry saw hard labour as being important as part of the punitive nature of prison. She was not against the use of the Crank Wheel for women where a narrow drum was placed between the woman Is legs with a long handle on one side which on being turned caused a series of cups to rotate, the cups would collect sand and then throw it back out. This was purely punitive and decidedly barbaric, serving no use in the same way as the treadmill. Her aim in advocating this form of punishment was to reform recalcitrant women. She saw nothing better than women learning to sew, cut and make up articles of clothing, wash, clean, iron and cook to help her perform her domestic chores correctly upon release. There is still a stigma attached to women today who are not as domesticated as others. Those with more masculine traits are seen as abnormal by staff and inmates alike.
Whilst women were taught to read, it was only with the idea of learning to appreciate the teachings of the Bible as a clean mind could only be obtained through holiness. Secular education had a more minor role in female establishments than male as it was considered unseemly for women to have to high an education. This is true today where full-time education is rare in female prisons and that which is available often incorporates the traditional female areas of sewing, cooking and social studies such as parenting. Education in male establishments is much more varied and attuned to modem technology and computer skills such as desk top publishing as opposed to word processing whereby the computer is merely used as a vehicle to type basic documents.
Fry did not encourage contact with male members of staff apart from the chaplain, and even religious instruction should be carried out by ladies. Today, even though there are male members of staff they are often closely watched as they might be corrupted by wanton females. The rule whereby orderlies must change their job regularly is more strictly enforced in female establishments as too much contact between men and women is considered dangerous.
Fry also Proposed four stages during which women should pass their sentence which was run on a rewards basis for good behaviour and is similar to the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme in operation today. Women were punished for unlady like behaviour and this is as true today as it was in Victorian Britain. Women also wore badges depending which stage they were in and could be looked up to as good examples, in the same way as exists today.
Thus if any progress is to be made in the reform of female prisons, the Women's Policy Unit and Organisations must try to move away from the legacy of the past and treat women as individuals and equal to men. They must move away from the social control of women and look towards a new fairness and understanding of women's needs through equality of rights, education, work and the imposition of rules. It is only through talking to the women directly concerning their needs that opportunities can be implemented in the millennium. A move away from Punitive measures and a focus on rehabilitation are also vital. Whilst Fry attempted to improve conditions for women, the moral framework under which it was done has harmed any progress towards justice and fairness. By advocating a hands on approach to female reform, then the situation would improve. Staff need to be trained to respond correctly to women and ensure an equilibrium is constantly kept between the male and female estates. Less emphasis on academic research and more direct responses are required to truly improve the system and prevent the re-offending rate from increasing. Unless we are given a voice, the inheritance of respectful silence will always remain to prevent us from progress and change.