The Women and Prison website is one which hopes “to promote strategies and actions that challenge the system and the ways that it reproduces all forms of discrimination, violence, and social injustice in the treatment of women and their families.”
I thought about that recently when visiting Eastern State Penitentiary in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. Eastern State was a maximum security prison built in 1829. It was considered “state of the art” in its day and was the model for many other prisons around the world. In the beginning, it was designed for solitary confinement of prisoner with the intention that they would, through prison work and reading the bible, repent of their sins and become productive members of society.
What surprised me about Eastern State was how many women were incarcerated from 1831 to 1923. The women were later sent to Muncy Prison in western Pennsylvania. I spent some time in a section of the prison that had a small display about the women.
As I read their stories, including the reason they were in jail, I began to see a pattern. While many of the women were sent because of theft or prostitution, many women were there for murder. That didn’t surprise me, until I started noticing something else – they had one victim, their spouse. Which got me thinking about domestic violence…
Domestic Violence is considered by almost everyone as a serious problem in western countries. According to the statistics, the costs of intimate partner violence in the US alone exceed $5.8 billion per year: $4.1 billion are for direct medical and health care services, while productivity losses account for nearly $1.8 billion. In the days of women at Eastern State Penitentiary, the standards and laws were more like that in many Middle Eastern countries today. Around the world, one in three women have been assaulted by someone in their own family and Islam’s Sharia law approves of stoning a woman who has been unfaithful and killing her to preserve the honor of the family (honor killings).
That’s not unlike how women were treated – even as late as the 1950’s, domestic violence wasn’t talked about hardly at all. Yet women who fought against their abusers were considered murderers and sent to prison – usually with a sentence of life without parole. I wondered how many of the Eastern State inmates lived their lives in solitary confinement for defending themselves against their intimate partner.
Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971 and is now being renovated as a historical site. It also has a great haunted house experience in the fall. If you are in town during the summer or fall months, Eastern State is worth going to see.
Annmarie Kelly, www.victoriouswoman.com