- "She keeps the place in Continual Excitement:"Female Inmates' Reactions to Incarceration in Antebellum Pennsylvania's Prisons
Western State Penitentiary, located in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, received its first inmate on July 31, 1826. Less than a year later, on March 29, 1827, an inmate, Hiram Lindsay, escaped from its confines. It was later discovered that Lindsay was aided by "the coloured woman" who from "feelings of humanity, on the part of her Keeper was not confined that night to her cell."1 Only one woman was in the prison at the time: Maria Penrose, twenty-one, born in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, and described as having a yellow complexion with black hair and eyes, arrived at the Penitentiary on September 6, 1826, to serve a sentence of two years for larceny committed in Bedford County. She would serve a little over one year and be discharged on December 1, 1827.2 Penrose was a typical female convict in Western State Penitentiary: she was young, African American, born in Pennsylvania, and convicted of larceny. While Penrose may have only been an accomplice in Lindsay's act of overt resistance to the prison system, her role exemplifies that female [End Page 51] inmates were not always passive victims of the penal institutions but found ways to react to and challenge imprisonment. Female inmates found numerous ways to make their presence known in Pennsylvania's state and county prisons, ranging from subtle, personal acts to hold onto their identity, to using privileges obtained from prison staff to make their prison sentences easier, to blatant attempts at physical resistance to the oppressive prison system.
Penrose had used the sympathy of prison guards and the privilege of being able to roam the cell blocks to aid another inmate in thwarting prison security. Women were incarcerated in Pennsylvania's penitentiaries alongside men, yet they constituted a small percentage of the overall prison population. As a result, prison guards often neglected the needs of this small inmate population, treated them differently, and were inconsistent in their protocols toward female prisoners. This differential treatment reflected the guards' discomfort with having women in the institution. Especially in the early years of the penitentiaries' existence, female inmates were often given extra privileges, perhaps as a way to assuage the guilt of having them housed with male prisoners.3
Some female inmates, like Penrose, used the sympathetic treatment of the guards to their advantage. Her involvement in the escape may not be deemed a form of direct resistance, but she clearly used what privileges she had as the sole female inmate to help Lindsay regain his freedom, a goal perhaps she felt she could not attain herself. Because she was given privileges, it is possible that the conditions of her incarceration were not as bad as those of other inmates. In a place where anonymity and isolation were supposedly the norm, Penrose seemed to have had the freedom to move about the prison as she wished. While we do not know if she used her privileges to help him out of compassion or if her plan was a more general act to hinder penitentiary discipline, her actions indicate that when prisoners had an opportunity to work against their punishers they used it.4
Imprisoned women in Pennsylvania's state and county prisons, such as Penrose, resisted becoming lost in the prison systems in numerous ways. Sometimes women's actions were simply forms of protest against a coercive system. These protestations could be subtle, such as writing secret letters or telling their stories of incarceration to the outside world, which can be seen as personal forms of reaction against incarceration—attempts to hold on to their humanity and identity. Other women used privileges given to them from sympathetic prison staff to alleviate the harshness of incarceration, or, in Penrose's case, to help another inmate defy incarceration outright. [End Page 52] Although privileges like those offered to Penrose were not supposed to be given according to penitentiary protocols, when given they provided female inmates with the opportunity to react against penitentiary discipline. In county jails especially, and sometimes in the state penitentiaries, women resorted to overt forms of resistance. These...