Captive Motherhood: Pregnancy, Labor, and Imprisonment in 19th-Century Virginia

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 11:00 AM
Mile High Ballroom 1C (Colorado Convention Center)
Hilary Coulson, Penn State University
This presentation explores the Virginia Penitentiary’s records pertaining to female inmates in the 19th century and their experience as a minority population in the facility. Through prison registers, administrative papers, legislative reports, and quantitative data analysis of prisoner demographics, the unknown history of motherhood in the penitentiary comes to light. In May of 1862, the commissioners on the penitentiary in Richmond reported that convicted slaves who were recently purchased from their owners by the State of Virginia were proving to be more costly to the State than their projected monetary worth. Indeed, a vast majority of prisoners were former or recently freed slaves. The author of the record lamented that female convicts who were assigned to work details outside the prison walls were not good workers and many were returning to the penitentiary pregnant. Prior to and during this time period, the Virginia legislature was unwilling to invest in separate confinement, sex-segregated work assignments, or beef up security details on state labor projects to prevent the inevitable liaisons amongst convicts. As a result, prison administrators were constantly negotiating terms for female inmates to bring children to term and raise them in their cells; I refer to this as “captive motherhood.” The style of imprisonment that emerged in Virginia reflects the South’s struggle to build sustainable institutions and acquiesce to rising complications due to the increase in female inmates. Although men were always the majority of prisoners, by exploring the challenges imprisoned mothers faced, historians can recognize a minority prison population and rethink the meanings of womanhood, motherhood, labor, and imprisonment in the 19th century South.
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