Editor's Notebook: It’s time to debate women’s crime and punishment policies

Mar 1, 2003

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Sally Jefferson arrived at Alton Penitentiary on September 11, 1835. A prison clerk’s brief notation in the Convict Register marked the occasion. “No. 23,” the clerk wrote, had been sentenced by the Peoria County Circuit Court to 12 months of confinement for arson, including two weeks in solitary. She was 24 years old. “Her left hand and arm had been considerably seared by a burn when young.”

Historian L. Mara Dodge discovered this fleeting reference to Sally Jefferson in the Illinois State Historical Library while researching Illinois’ female prison population. In her book, “Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind”: A Study of Women, Crime, and Prisons, 1835-2000, she writes that no court files on Sally Jefferson’s case survived, and no news reports about her crime. There’s no record of the circumstances surrounding her act, her motivations or her social standing. Arson was an unusual crime for a woman, Dodge notes, yet the sentence was severe. Does the seared arm suggest a history of setting fires? There is no way to know. 

But if Sally Jefferson disappeared from the historical record, two facts about her case remain. She was the first woman sentenced to prison in Illinois, and she was pardoned by the governor a mere six weeks after entering Alton. 

Though no reasons were given for mercy, this much is certain: Illinois’ first penitentiary was ill-equipped to house female convicts. The warden had no room and no desire to accommodate them. It would be five years before an Illinois judge sentenced a second woman to prison. It would be another two decades before the state designed a building to house women within Illinois’ second penitentiary at Joliet. It would be the end of the 19th century before a separate woman’s prison was built, also at Joliet. And it would be 1930 before state officials, finally bowing to the will of Illinois’ reform-minded club women, opened Dwight, Illinois’ first “reformatory,” with the stated aim of addressing the special needs of women convicts.

Dodge marshals an impressive array of primary sources, including inmate jackets and parole petitions, to tell the story of Illinois’ women prisoners as it evolved. And she has the credentials to give it theoretical heft. She once taught in this state’s prisons and is an assistant professor of history at Westfield State College in Westfield, Mass.

Her book, published by Northern Illinois University Press, is valuable on two counts. It arrived late last year, in time to mark Women’s History Month. And it offers context for a debate about this state’s responsibilities regarding female crime and punishment. 

In fact, “Whores and Thieves of the Worst Kind” landed atIllinois Issues just about the same time as former Gov. George Ryan’s late-September press release touting the groundbreaking of Hopkins Park women’s prison. That $100 million, 1,800-bed facility is — at last check — slated to open in 2005 in Ryan’s home county of Kankakee. Pembroke Township to be precise, one of the nation’s poorest communities. Hopkins Park would be Illinois’ fourth existing adult women’s prison. Dwight replaced the women’s prison in Joliet. In 2000, Lincoln was converted to a female prison and the state opened another in Decatur. The new site was chosen because it’s close to Cook County, home to most female prisoners, and because of Pembroke Township’s economic needs. But the printed statement adds a third reason: Hopkins Park will ease pressure from the rising number of female offenders, the fastest-growing segment of this state’s inmate population.

The Department of Corrections provided the numbers. Women are still a fraction of the state’s overall adult prison population — 6 percent of 43,000 inmates. But the percentage of women inmates has been rising. In 1990, it was 4.4 percent. The rate of female admissions was more than double that of men in the back half of the 1990s. The population of adult female prisoners is growing, from 1,191 in fiscal year 1990 to 2,712 in fiscal year 2002, a 128 percent increase. The agency projects a total of 3,493 by the end of fiscal year 2004. 

Possible reasons for the increase? Some suggest that female offenders are less likely to get a break because more women are serving on the bench, especially in Cook County. In this issue, Bethany Warner details the rise in the number of women judges in Illinois. Nearly one-third of the judges in the Cook County Circuit Court system are women. In 1991, they were only 13.2 percent of the total. Women also made gains outside Cook, but not by nearly as much. Nationally, the number of women judges is up, too. The consequences of this are difficult to track, but one study by two Indiana political scientists shows that women judges do impose harsher sentences in criminal cases. Yet more work needs to be done by researchers to identify trends in sentencing by female judges.

An easier trend to identify is the political push to get tough on drug crimes. According to the corrections department, the primary factor driving the relative growth of the female prison population has been the relative growth in their convictions for drug offenses. Between fiscal year 1990 and fiscal year 2002, the number of female drug offenders increased 270 percent, making that the most prevalent type of offense among female prisoners. 

It might be better left to historians to assess reasons for the growing female prison population. In the meantime, officials provided this profile in the department’s 2000 Five Year Plan for Female Inmates: Typically, she’s a 34-year-old black single mother from Cook County who has been sentenced for nonviolent crime. And she’s a first-time offender. Dodge adds this: “Like their counterparts in previous centuries, women sentenced to prison today are overwhelmingly poor, marginalized and disadvantaged.” 

The penitentiary, she writes, “was never considered an appropriate place for punishing ‘proper women.’” In the 19th century, improper meant mostly Irish and other European-born immigrants. Later, race replaced ethnicity in the social definition of female criminal-ity. “From 1890 to 1950, African-American women, averaging approximately 4 percent of the state’s female population, were sentenced for 70 percent of all serious assaults, 57 percent of all robberies, 66 percent of all manslaughter deaths and 53 percent of all murders.”

Further, female prisoners were less likely to have community or familial roots. Most were considered immoral and disreputable. And many failed at conventional forms of femininity. The number of women in Illinois prisons grew slowly, though. Between 1835 and 1930, Dodge writes, only 1,653 women were sentenced to prison in this state — fewer than 20 annually — in contrast to more than 70,000 men. 

There have been spikes in the numbers of women sentenced, but they tended to occur after the capacity for housing women was expanded or prison conditions were marginally improved. 

Dodge maintains these rises in the number of women inmates were mere upticks. “Although today’s female offenders share many similarities with women prisoners from earlier eras, they are being incarcerated in historically unprecedented numbers.” She attributes this to “draconian criminal justice policies.” 

These are political decisions, of course. But the heart of Dodge’s analysis is her assessment that crime is a social construct. She argues the decision to prosecute an act depends as much on the character of the accused, the prejudices of the prosecutor and the norms of a community as on the act itself.

“Above and beyond their legal offenses, and well into the 1960s, it was officials’ estimates of women’s character, particularly their moral and sexual reputations, that often determined their fate within the criminal justice system.” Their reputations were compromised, too, by those of their families, husbands and friends, motivating one prison clerk in 1896 to characterize a female prisoner and her accomplices as “whores and thieves of the worst kind.”

Patterns of prosecution have changed in Illinois through the decades, as has the purpose of imprisonment. But, Dodge argues, no sustained debate has accompanied these transitions. 

It’s time.

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.


Illinois Issues, March 2003