chapter  4
21 Pages

An invitation to discourse

The initial connection between philanthropists and 'prostitutes' lay in the former's activities in the prison reform movement. Developments in the penal system throughout the preceding centuries led to an increase in the number of people incarcerated for a wider range of offences, many of whom would have been reprimanded, fined, whipped, or sent back to their masters and not imprisoned earlier in the century.l The increase in the prison population led to the problems of overcrowding and an inability to classify prisoners by age and sex or the seriousness of the crime and number of previous offences. From these problems emerged a growing concern about the role of prisons and poorhouses in controlling young female paupers, orphans, and misdemeanants. Authorities claimed that the poorhouse was the worst place for impressionable young girls, whose morals would be corrupted if they were left to associate with older women of 'low character'. They predicted that without their intervention poorhouse girls would grow up to be 'prostitutes' and thieves, or by producing illegitimate children would become chronic burdens on the parish.2 In addition to being critical of the impact of poorhouses on the moral development of young females, philanthropists were also critical of the penal system for its part in 'hardening' young female offenders, particularly those charged with first offences and sexual misconduct. They argued that bringing young female offenders before the court and subjecting them to prison sentences aided their corruption. This does not mean that reformers were losing faith in the reformative potential of detention; on the contrary, they fully endorsed detaining 'fallen' women, provided that they were not incarcerated with 'criminals'. Their solution was to establish separate and non-statutory institutions called

magdalene homes, which would divert young women away from prisons and poorhouses. They adopted what criminologists now call a 'decarceration strategy' ,3 to entice women charged with sexual misdemeanours into direct care early in their careers, and personally to supervise their reformation. This involved persuading a woman to commit herself to a long period of 'voluntary' incarceration in a magdalene asylum, where she would undergo a strict regime of moral education and industrial training, and be expected to conform to middle-class standards of femininity.