Pay Dirt

I’ve been quiet for a while, partially because I’ve been otherwise occupied, partially because I’ve been lethargic on the subject of writing, and partially because my novel stagnated from a lack of research options.

But yesterday while just listlessly googling, I hit absolute pay dirt and I feel rejuvenated.

Did you know, there is basically no information about women in prison in the early 20th century? Nothing about how they lived, what they experienced, what the conditions were like, how they were treated, where they were in relation to male prisoners, etc. Zip. Nothing. Historical, fictional, theoretical… all came up empty.

See, a couple months ago, I finally figured out the narrative angle of the novel, with my main female character telling her history from her jail cell. The only problem was, the story takes place in the early 20th century, and the more I researched, the little I found. At least, not unless the women were suffragettes, which had nothing to do with my story.

I was dumbfounded. How had no one written about this before? I mean, it’s like women never did anything jail-worthy until at least after World War I, except protest the lack of voting rights. No woman killed anyone? No woman stole anything, no one prostituted?

Impossible. Yet no one was talking about it.

But yesterday I started poking around in the records of my based-on-a-true-story story, and found that the real woman had been specifically incarcerated in Joliet Women’s Prison. A few permutations of those words, and I finally, FINALLY, came across “Joliet Prison Post,” a newsletter published monthly by Joliet prisoners in 1914 (nailed it!) — prisoners, including women.

Joliet Women’s Prison

So far I’ve found an interview with the matron where she describes their living conditions and punishments, articles by a prisoner talking about the “school” they’ve put together and how much fun it is to read, a prison nurse lamenting the treatment in other institutions, and a new matron discussing the changes and improvements she’s instating.

If I wanted to know how my felonious female was living at the time, I could not have found anything better. Though I question the glowing praise of the warden, and the claims that no one caused trouble, and that the women lived more like at boarding school than prison with only light work to keep them occupied… but, that’s where my imagination will break free from documentation and I can put in as much danger and dissension and disaster as my little writer heart desires.

Research continues!



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