LEGACY STORIES: System of Crime & Punishment

Excerpted from “35 Years of Minnesota Women,” based on Minnesota Women’s Press coverage

“Addressing special needs of female offenders”

by LeeAnne Engfer, March 1987

Last August the new correctional facility for women in Shakopee opened, replacing the over-crowded, hazardous prison built in 1920. The new prison is one of what the Minnesota Department of Corrections hopes will be many improvements in treatment of female offenders, according to Janet Clark Entzel, director of planning for female offenders in the department.

The original Shakopee prison was designed to house 60-65 women. By the 1970s and 1980s, up to 100 women were “crammed in,” Entzel said.

Unlike the old charge of “crimes against chastity,” today’s female offender is most likely to be convicted of an economic crime, such as writing bad checks, welfare fraud, or possession of drugs.

“A lot of it is chemical dependency problems and economic problems,” Entzel noted. “Most of the women lack a work history, or if they have a work history, they’re underemployed.”

Entzel added that “usually it takes a series of these crimes before a woman is sent to prison. It’s unfortunate that we don’t intervene in a meaningful way [first].”

Entzel is critical of the probation system because, she said, reporting to a probation officer once a month does not give women skills they need — like job and parenting skills — to survive and avoid incarceration.

“There are a lot of issues and special needs of women that need to be addressed in the areas of battering and male dependency,” Entzel said. “Straight probation is not going to deal with any of those addictive system issues or histories of abuse.”

One major change in the treatment of female offenders today is the realization that many women who are incarcerated have been victims of physical or sexual abuse. “In the prison, it’s over 80 percent that we’ve identified with abusive histories,” she said. “It could be higher than that.”

The Women’s Self-Help Center in St. Louis, Missouri, reports that an estimated 50 percent of women currently in prison in American committed the crime for which they are being punished in order to avoid further abuse.

One pilot projects allows female offenders in Brainerd to work in the Battered Women’s Shelter there rather than serve time in jail. Another project in the works is a comprehensive study of female offenders in Minnesota and the services currently available to assist them in becoming self-sufficient.

Entzel said women prisoners feel powerless and lack autonomy and a sense of identity. Many are anxious about their children.

Having women in key positions at the Department of Corrections has been positive, she believes. “I think females have really pushed the need to address specific needs of female offenders,” Entzel said. “It’s just been fairly recently that the awareness has been there.”

A short history of women in prison

Into the 1800s female criminals were housed in jails, dungeons, and “alms houses” along with men, children, the mentally ill, physically handicapped, and anyone else deemed socially unfit. They ate and slept together in large, unsanitary rooms, unprotected from physical or sexual abuse.

“Conditions were awful for all people, but specifically for women because their numbers were so small,” said Janet Clark Entzel, of Minnesota’s Department of Corrections.

In 1920, the Shakopee Correctional Facility for Women included those charged mostly for “crimes against chastity.”

Entzel noted, “The philosophy at Shakopee was to make ladies out of the ‘girls,’ as they called them. They were required to conform to an endless array of rules regarding their dress and their grooming and social behavior.” Such as: sleeves could not be rolled up, stockings could not be rolled down, no makeup, talking only at meals and recreation.

Lurline Baker-Kent, former state assistant commissioner of corrections, quoted in “Community must invest in youth,” by Jennifer Thaney, Minnesota Women’s press, May 1998:

“We are willing to lock kids up. We are not looking at early intervention and prevention. We are not making an effort to integrate those leaving the criminal justice system into the wider community. If the people developing policy are mostly white, the last thing they are going to think about is how those policies will impact African Americans. It is time for us to be at the table.”

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