The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1999, Volume 45, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Gendered Justice in the American West: Women Prisoners in Men’s Penitentiaries. By Anne M. Butler. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1997. Photos, illustrations, bibliography, notes. xi + 262 pp.

Reviewed by Patricia A. Washington, Assistant Professor, Department of Women’s Studies, San Diego State University.

The mythology of the criminal justice system is that “justice” is dispensed evenhandedly — or, at least, “blindly.” The realities, however, are much more complex. Jails and prisons often function as tools for social control of “throwaway populations,” whereby the state is permitted to extract free labor, human dignity, and citizenship rights from people who cannot “buy” justice with money, political leverage, or social expediency. Racial-ethnic minorities, the uneducated, and the poor overwhelmingly receive the harshest and lengthiest punishments allowed under the law — for real and fabricated crimes. And, far too often, when we think of crime and punishment in the U.S., the first image that comes to mind is one our society has instilled in us: the Black or Latino male who has robbed or raped or murdered someone out of some supposedly biological imperative to do harm to others. While the “prison-industrial complex” is largely understood to be just one more modern-day salvo on the part of a White power elite struggling to maintain control of a nation that is rapidly “browning,” Anne Butler’s research demonstrates that the extra-legal use of criminal justice system is as old as it is familiar.

Drawing on information gleaned from the archives of nineteen western states, as well as research conducted inside three western penitentiaries for men, Butler produces a historically rich and humanly compelling account of women who were incarcerated in state penal institutions for men during a time (1865-1915) when the very idea of female criminality went against the grain of public consciousness. While clearly conducting her research through a “gendered” lens, Butler pays careful attention to race, class, and age, as well, arguing that these factors impacted women’s arrest and conviction rates, their treatment after incarceration, and their likelihood of being paroled or pardoned. Butler’s willingness to address issues of race and social class head-on — rather than exclusively privileging gender — is one of the many strong points of her book.

Butler’s work proceeds developmentally. The first chapter details how women’s experiences in male penitentiaries replicate the “[g]ender constraints imposed by the social, economic, and political order” of the American West in general (p. 24). This connection between women incarcerated in men’s prisons and women “constrained” within the broader social order provides the framework for successive chapters. Thus, the second chapter, “The Male Prison World,” describes how “[m]asculinity in its social, economic, and political organization, controlled the western prisons” (p.50) and “women prisoners lacked a gendered space” (p. 51). Likewise, the third chapter, “Women of the Prison World,” documents numerous cases in which women were incarcerated largely for violating cultural constraints or sexual and/or gendered codes of conduct.

Chapter Four, “Women’s World of Violence,” is an all too familiar primer on the cycle of domestic violence — “episodes largely stemm[ing] from chronic conditions of verbal and physical abuse in women’s workplaces and home environments” (113). As Butler notes, women’s self-defensive acts in the face of life-threatening violence from their husbands or intimate partners “spawned and excused the violent assaults against female inmates once they entered the prison routines” (p. 113).

The remaining chapters of Butler’s work details differential treatment of male and female prisoners, or differential impact of similar treatment. There were noticeable differences in the impact of diet for men and women, for instance, although the diets of both were extraordinarily poor. Moreover, disabled, drug-addicted, pregnant or nursing, menstruating, or chronically ill women prisoners were triply oppressed by their incarceration in prisons built by men for men. As Butler notes in her overall conclusion to the text, “If society wanted to convert women law-breakers into good citizens, they simply selected the wrong institution. If, on the other hand, society sought to punish women, not only for legal transgressions, but especially for gender violations, the male penitentiary proved an excellent choice” (p. 225)

At the start of her work, Butler promised that her research would make an important contribution to our understanding of contemporary experiences of the criminal justice system. And it does. As in the era described by Butler, many prison and governmental authorities devote their energies to getting as much labor from inmates as possible, while simultaneously spending as little as they can on inmate care. Now as then, inmates are subjected to sexual abuse by other inmates, as well as by some prison officials. Now as then, the prison industry often appears to exist as an end unto itself. Now as then, race and class often dictate who is most likely to be arrested, convicted and incarcerated for contrived or actual offenses; who is likely to receive the lengthiest punishment; and who is the least likely to be paroled or to receive pardon or clemency.

Gendered Justice in the American West is a richly detailed, wonderfully accessible book that captures both the humanity of women prisoners and the inhumanity of male-built, male-run and male-focused prison systems. To me, it’s only failing has to do with what I have already characterized as one of its major strengths — it’s unflinching gaze at the institutionalized racism made women of color within the prison system even more vulnerable to the violence and depravity of male inmates and prison officials. I am perplexed that Butler provides such a heavily nuanced analysis of race — particularly the treatment of Black women prisoners — from the period 1865-1915 (the years immediately following the end of slavery), but does not give much consideration to the likelihood that incarceration rates and patterns for Black women may have been related to an influx of newly freed slaves and the need to exert legal and extra-legal forms of social control. Despite what I consider to be this one shortcoming, however, I believe that Butler’s work makes an extremely important contribution to our understanding of the history of women in the criminal justice system.

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