Crisis Builds over Americas Prison System

Societal attitude towards lesbians in general and lesbian relationships among incarcerated women have had interesting histories. Early studies equated prison lesbianism with race; i.e., aggressive black lesbians sought to corrupt “innocent white inmates.” During the 1950’s, politicians also began to relate homosexual behavior with the “Communist menace,” and female lesbians were regarded as sinister, aggressive criminals.

Today’s prisons still provide a ready environment for homosexual behavior. Women prisoners, deprived of nurturing family relationships and intimacy join “families” (which may or may not include sexual relations) and may even participate in a “marriage” ceremony, often complete with veil, flowers and a “minister.” It is clear that women in prison gravitate towards relationships that commonly include a sexual component and that women’s prisons are places where lesbianism is commonplace.

The image of prison lesbians has evolved both in contemporary research and in the way the public views them. This article will provide both a historical overview of female homosexuality behind bars, from its beginnings with the strong racial component, through its association with the “Red Menace” of the McCarthy era, up to recently where even now our criminal justice system tends to treat lesbians as stereotypical “aggressive criminal types.”

I will make an alternative argument on behalf lesbians behind bars: in its zeal to punish wrongdoing, our criminal justice system has often chosen to deprive prisoners of contact with the opposite sex; therefore, many women in prison respond to the loneliness and emptiness in their lives by constructing prison “families” and forming temporary homosexual liaisons, only to return to heterosexual behavior upon leaving prison.

Estelle Freedman (1996) provides an interesting and comprehensive chronicle of how the inmate-lesbian stereotype developed in the early 20th century. Up to the early years of this century, according to Freedman, “only prostitutes were considered as female sex criminals (p.397).” Freedman notes that even though there was widespread evidence of lesbian activity within women’s reformatories, there were very few studies written on the subject. Whenever authors did mention homosexuality, “they usually identified Black women as lesbian aggressors and white women as temporary partners (p. 397).”

Jean Harris (1988), an author-inmate of Bedford Hills Prison in New York, cites the controversy that resulted in 1915, when women’s reformatories were integrated. Those who objected to racial integration of prisons claimed that “undesirable sex relations grow out of this mingling of the two races (p. 106).” Harris, typically outspoken and controversial, has another view:

“The truth was, some of the white women were finding some of the black women sexually appealing. They still do. Homosexuality had existed right from the start but not to the extent that overcrowding made possible and the mixture of races made it a cause clbre (p. 106).”

A 1915 investigation resulted in the racial segregation of Bedford Hills from 1916 until the late 1950’s (Harris 1988). It did not, however, stamp out lesbianism interracial or otherwise. In fact, according to Freedman (1996) administrators either tolerated lesbian relationships or denied they existed.

The reluctance to acknowledge lesbianism in prison lasted through the 1920s and 1930s until the social upheaval of World War II resulted in increased arrests for prostitution and resulting prison overcrowding (Freedman, 1996). Freedman also cites a “growing lesbian subculture centered around predominantly white, working-class bars (p. 312).” Freedman provides a historical perspective of this new focus on female homosexuality:

“Aside from any actual increase in lesbian activity in prison, fears about the dangers of female sexual expression escalated during wartime, especially targeting white women as the purveyors of venereal disease to soldiers or as seductive saboteurs. It was in this context that female homosexuality in general, and among white women in prisons, came under closer scrutiny (p. 402).

In the post-war decade, there was a relative tolerance towards prison lesbianism. It was viewed as a “temporary substitute for heterosexual relations (Freedman, 1996, p. 392).” Margaret Meade, for example, advocated “adequate recreation and social stimulation as diversions from homosexuality in prison” (Freedman, 1996, p. 392). According to Freedman, prison administrators supported Mead’s position during that time.

However, post-war McCarthy-era campaigns “identified homosexuals as the source of communist subversion and moral ruin, so too in the microcosm of the women’s prison the lesbian became a scapegoat for the demise of institutional order and gender propriety” (Freedman, 1996, p. 409). From the feminist perspective, Freedman’s analysis is that these post-war changes “coincided with a larger cultural emphasis on both the power of female sexuality and the need to contain it within domestic relationships among white and middle-class Americans” (p. 403).

Freedman concludes her well-documented and thoughtful study with the pessimistic analysis that in 1987 the public had still had not changed its stereotypical view of female homosexuality and how that view influenced sentencing:

“Women in prison have continued to suffer from the older cultural construction. Prison lesbians, a 1987 study proclaimed, are more criminalistic, more feministic and more aggressive’ than other prisoners. These stereotypes help explain why lesbians serve longer terms than non-lesbians and why prison officials continue to treat lesbians more harshly that other women (p. 410).

Cultural constructions, like most stereotypes, sometimes do not to hold up well. Joycelyn Pollock-Byrne (1990), for example, describes the varying types of lesbian relationships women prisoners tend to form. Relationships of women in prison, according to Pollock-Byrne, were either “familial or connubial; women formed pseudo-familiesor they entered lesbian liaisons, sometimes formalized by marriages'” (p. 143). Pollock-Byrne (1990) notes that often one party takes on the masculine role “with stereotypical short hair, masculine clothing, and assumed authoritativeness”; however, “a prison relationship may also be one in which neither party exhibits a masculine role” (p. 144).

Pollock-Byrne (1990) further observes that only a few women who engage in homosexual relationships in prison are committed to the lesbian lifestyle. She maintains that prison homosexuality is a “sociological phenomenon and a subcultural adaptation to a specific situation” (p. 144).

Moreover, Pollock-Byrne reported that most women who engage in homosexual activity during prison revert to the heterosexual lifestyle upon release from prison. Harris’ (1986) personal experiences support this finding, and she states it most poignantly: “For some, homosexuality is a biological fact. For most it is simply one more indication of the unspeakable loneliness and emptiness of their lives” (p.234).

Erich Goode (1997) points out differences between male and female homosexuals that appear to support Pollock-Byrne’s analysis of women’s homosexual behavior in prison. “Lesbians,” says Goode, “tend to have fewer sexual relationships, the relationships tend to last much longer, and both partners tend to be far more romantically involved than is true for male homosexuals” (p. 265).

The “romantic connection” in prison lesbian relationships is the subject of a particularly sympathetic and sensitive article on love and sexuality in one women’s prison by M. Katherine Maeve. (1999). “Incarcerated women,” she writes, “have numerous physical, social, and emotional health care needs, including specific needs related to their expressions of sexuality while in prison” (p. 46).

Maeve writes from the perspective a prison’s admission nurse. In her job she routinely provides prisoners information on safer sex between women “albeit without formal approval from the bureaucracy” (p. 51). She also notes that the public’s view of sexuality between incarcerated women “borders on the prurient and profane” and her study “suggests that women in prison continue to be sexual beings who come to participate’ in love and sex with one another based on their need for relationships and friendship” (p. 46).

Maeve reports that most women come to prison as single mothers “with long histories of problematic intimate relationship” (p. 51). She also cites two sad facts of life about women’s prisons: (1) they are located mostly in remote rural areas, making visits by children, family, and friends, difficult and in infrequent; (2) nationally, only about 50% of women inmates ever see their children while they are in prison. This separation makes worse “already strained bonds” and continues to be “a source of great anxiety and sadness” for women prisoners (p. 51).

Couple the foregoing with the fact that the majority of women in prison, according to Maeve, have histories of “physical and sexual abuse throughout their childhood, often beginning with their earliest memories” (p. 51), it is not surprising that women in prison often suffer from depression and serious mental illness and that they seek solace among their own kind in prison.

Maeve’s view of these strong needs is supported by Kosof (1984) who reports that while in prison, “women form some strong bonds. They become very close to one another. They seem to have a sense of community. Some of them call each other Ma’ and Pa.’ Instead of having gangs like the men have, they have families'” (p. 44). Harris (1986) says that perhaps “the make-believe family is a response to prison deprivation, or perhaps it’s something they lacked outside as well” (p. 233).

Harris (1986) personally observed women in prison adopting “inmate cultures that imitate family patterns” along with the “role playing” and “power plays.” Every floor and every corridor she observed “has at least one family unit’ with a Mommy’ at its center. One hears someone calling Mommy’ here all day long” (p. 233).

When women in prison form homosexual relationships within these “families,” they begin participating in a process described by Maeve as “turned on,” “turned out,” or “turned over.” “Turned on” refers to women who become attracted to other women “because of looks, countenance, or perhaps the way she looked at me'” “Turned out” refers to a first sexual experience in prison with another woman. According to Maeve, women “were also likely to be turned over,’ which meant that they tended to lose their heads and become crazy with love, often resulting in abusive behavior between women (p. 56).”

Harris (1988) describes some of these abusive relationships, which normally require a male role player (“butch”):

“I’ve watched many a woman wash, iron, and cook for her “butch,” “dike, “bulldagger,” and I’ve heard one stand outside a cell door, begging forgiveness for some wrongdoing she couldn’t identify. “What did I do, Tony? I did it all just the way you told me. I can’t do any more. How can you be mad at me, Tony?” (p. 136)

The “butch” says Harris, can be as difficult as the man she left on the street “and just as inclined to have three or four other women on the stringIf, however, the female has more than one guy,’ she runs the risk of having the hell beat out of her by one or both of them” (p. 136)

Abusive or otherwise, Pollock-Byrne (1990) describes these relationships as a “substitute for the natural family group the women had been deprived of by their imprisonment” (p. 145). Harris (1988) was past 60 years of age when she provided this compassionate view of homosexual behavior of women in prison:

“Today, what awareness I have of (homosexuality) saddens me a little, leaves me feeling something is amiss that I will never understand or that there is a loneliness and emptiness so deep in the lives of some of these women that they will grasp at anything to fill the void and make the hurting go away.” (p. 142).

As stated previously, Maeve (1999) identified the stigmatization that still remains at the center of lesbianism. In fact, she points out that women in prison suffer a double stigmatization of their imprisonment and sexuality. Maeve also provides a feminist insight into this subject. “Keeping women in line sexually” she says, “is the bedrock of the patriarchy and is arguably sustained in order to render us all harmless’ and powerless”(p. 63).

Pollock-Byrne (1990) observes that trying to describe a women’s prison “without reference to the homosexual relationships found there would be like describing the prison for men without mentioning drugs or violence” (p. 144). It is clear, therefore, that lesbian behavior is pervasive in our women’s prison system. What was originally stigmatized on purely racial grounds, tolerated during the 1940s as somewhat harmless, and then during the McCarthy period regarded as subversive and eroding our country’s moral character, has continued to make the general public uncomfortable “often resulting in a perverted image of women who love other women” (Maeve, 1999, p. 46).

If, as discussed above, this “love” is a response akin to emotional self-defense on the part of women in prison, it serves as an indictment of the society and system that produced and now jails them. As Weiss (1988) points out, attitudes of kindness towards prisoners do not run deep in the United States. Our prison systems continue down the path that has led over and over “from brutal treatment and a spirit of vengefulness to unrest and rioting, then to efforts at reform and finally, to new cruelties and brutalities” (p. 147).

As Harris (1988) wrote from inside Bedford Hills maximum security prison for women: “If the public is wise, it will have sent us here to learn useful lessons, not to be reminded in every conceivable way that we are the human refuse of these teeming shores.” (p.290). It seems clear that the women who seek the solace of homosexual relationships and pseudo-families gain some sense of acceptance and worth through those relationships that our society and its harsh penal system deny them.


Anderson, G. M. (1995). Women and Criminal Justice An Interview With Jean Harris. America. 72, 10-16
Freedman, E. B. (1996) The Prison Lesbian: Race, Class, and the Construction of the Aggressive Female Homosexual, 1915-1965 Feminist Studies, 22, 397(27)
Goode, E. (1997). Deviant Behavior Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Harris, J. (1991). Marking Time New York: Macmillan
-. (1986). Strangers in Two Worlds New York: Macmillan
-. (1988). They Always Call Us Ladies: Stories From Prison. New York: Kensington Publishing
Kosof, A. (1984). Prison Life in America New York: Franklin Watts.
Maeve, K. M. (1999).The Social Construction of Love and Sexuality in a Women’s Prison. Advances in Nursing Science, 21, 46
Pollock-Byrne, J. (1990). Women, Prison, & Crime. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole
Weiss, A. (1988). Prisons, A System in Trouble. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers