Mary Gibson, “Is Punishment Gendered? The Case of Modern Italy”. Commentary by ARC Student Fellow, Emily Brooks

“Is Punishment Gendered? The Case of Modern Italy,” Dr. Mary Gibson, Department of History, John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY

Much of the field of prison history has been dominated by a chronological trajectory proposed by Michel Foucault in his seminal work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Foucault argued that between 1760 and 1840 new punishment regimes developed across the Western world.  These new systems moved away from public violence as the central form of punishment, focusing instead on depriving prisoners of liberty, and targeting the spirit rather than the body as the site of transformation.  Foucault noted that in many nations this shift in punishment was tied to a move into modernity. Political figures and public commentators touted their prisons as architectural examples of the power and order of the state. Foucault and scholars who accept his chronological framework have argued that the development of modern prisons in the Western world was influenced by Enlightenment thinking and correlated with the rise of industrial capitalism and liberal government.  They have also focused almost exclusively on men’s prisons. Dr. Mary Gibson, Professor of History at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, complicates this narrative by examining the emergence of modern prisons in Italy and comparing the development of both men’s and women’s prisons. Gibson considers, in a field dominated by the study of male prisoners, what examining women’s prisons can tell historians about the development of modern punishment systems. And more broadly, are different types of punishment gendered?

Gibson uses Rome as a case study since it was both the capital of the Papal States, and subsequently united Italy, as well as a site where many penal institutions were situated.  In examining changes in punishment practices in Rome, she finds that women were the first beneficiaries of a switch from corporal punishment to imprisonment. This switch, which can be first seen at San Michele prison in 1735, predated the unification of Italy by over one hundred years. Women in San Michele prison lived in separate cells, in which they were overseen by a single guard who could monitor all inmates, and worked in a wool factory for half the wages paid to female workers outside of prison walls. Thus, many of the hallmarks of the modern penitentiary; isolation, supervision, and manufacturing work, all appeared in Italy earlier than would be expected according to Foucault’s chronology, but can only be seen when examining women’s prisons as well as men’s.  Gibson argues that the San Michele women’s prison was part of a web of religious authorities and philanthropic efforts used to control people who existed outside of family units. Women, who were considered both weak and dangerous, were the objects of much of this charity.

Gibson notes that over the course of the 19th century the conditions of incarcerated women deteriorated. In San Michele, women were paired together in cells, and in some newer institutions, like the Diocleziane Baths, which housed men and women in separate areas, prisoners lived in dormitories.  This crowding together of prisoners was a move away from the isolation seen as central to modern prison architecture and a regression toward pre-modern organization of space. The work experience also changed as women were now trained, not for manufacturing work, but rather for handwork and other gendered labor that was intended to prepare them to serve within a family.  Although women in San Michele had been paid less than non-incarcerated female workers, they had learned a skill, which could then serve them on the labor market outside of prison walls. The transition in the treatment of imprisoned women was overseen by an order of nuns who ran San Michele starting in 1854.  Even after the emergence of the new Italian secular state, the religious control over women’s prisons was not challenged. Gibson notes that the conditions of women’s prisons did not fundamentally change until right before WWI when a series of articles appeared in print that exposed the treatment of women’s prisoners and the rule of nuns over incarcerated women.

The story of the development of men’s prisons in Rome, Gibson finds, was quite different. In contrast to the creation of institutions like San Michele, modern prisons were not established for men until a century later. Male prisoners served sentences of hard labor, chained to their fellow prisoners, until the late 19th century.  After Italian unification municipal authorities replaced the male section of Diocleziane Baths, with a hard labor camp called Tre Fontane. Supporters of Tre Fontane celebrated outdoor work as well suited to the rural men who comprised the majority of prisoners in the camp, and claimed that this work turned prisoners from brutes into men. This penal camp was closed in 1895 after it was criticized in Parliament, partly due to the extremely high rates of malaria contracted among the prisoners. It was replaced with a cellular prison called Regina Coeli, which was hailed as one of the new institutions that marked the modernization of the city.  Coeli was built by prisoners themselves, suggesting comparisons with the way that convict labor was used in the project of modernizing the American South in the late 19th century.  Eventually campaigns launched by construction workers against prison labor, again a trend with similarities in the American context, succeeded and prison workers moved out of the construction industry and into the business of printing.  Printers were less organized and the printing press in Regnia Coeli became one of the longest running prison industries. As the debate over Tre Fontane and the building of Regina Coeli suggest, by the late 19th century men’s prisons were already sites of reform. The development of men’s prisons, therefore, Gibson argues, followed a different path from that of women’s prisons,

Gibson’s work shows the utility of considering gender in connection with punishment. Through detailed research that included prison statistics such as the numbers of letters prisoners received, and information about work hours and penalties for disobedience, as well as the architectural plans of prisons, Gibson tracks changes in the development and functioning of prisons. By comparing the different trajectories of male and female punishment in Italy, Gibson challenges the revisionist model of prison historiography, which has generally accepted a conception of prison as a masculine space. Her work suggests that punishment can be gendered, and that considering how and why can reveal much about the development and functioning of punishment regimes.

~ Emily Brooks.