I picked up this book in a totally random way. It sat calling me from the shelf of fairly new books at my library. Thought, hmmm, isn’t Tehachapi a men’s prison? So I read the flap, it says……

The California Institution for Women, Tehachapi, once stood in the stark and windswept Cummings Valley, 130 miles northeast of Los Angeles. The state’s first prison for female inmates, the facility served, between 1933 and 1952, as a “laboratory” where penologists and reformers–mostly women–aimed to rehabilitate formerly “bad women” via a combination of tough love, education, hard work, and recreation.

This approach drew strong support and equally strong condemnation. Throughout its nineteen-year existence, the institution served as a political battleground. It pitted those who viewed rehabilitating female inmates as crucial to creating strong community bonds against critics who derided the “coddling” of hardened criminals, no matter what their gender.

The controversy ultimately doomed Tehachapi as a women’s prison, but Kathleen Cairns argues that this failure does not negate its historical importance. The Tehachapi experiment posed crucial questions about crime and punishment and about society’s treatment of individuals who do not fit neatly into cultural stereotypes–questions that remain unresolved to this day.”

My degree is in Psychology, and the interplay of emerging suffragist women’s movement interests me. The time that Tehachapi Women’s Prison was being bandied about was a big time of change in the county. There was the Progressive Movement in power and women were also starting to crack hole in the glass ceiling.

A Large group of club women felt that women prisoners needed to be cared for differently in order for them to return and survive in polite society. With training in jobs, exercise, respect and learning, the woman felt that they could indeed rehabilitate the prisoners. The politicos agreed, but they still wanted to control every aspect of the new women’s prison.

Some very strong female crusaders got together and got that prison built only to beset by a lack of budget, a few almost scandals, continual negative press and finally an earthquake in 1952 that leveled the dream. Even with all of the setbacks, The Tehachapi Women’s Prison had an outstanding 10 % recidivism rate.

My Thoughts: While most people would see a book about a women’s prison and pass, it you have any interest in women’s issues through the years, this is a great book. It is a short read, 177 without all of the biographical notes. I learned a lot about the struggles of women after the got the right to vote. As we know, suffrage wasn’t like a magic wand, it didn’t make men and women equal from the day it was signed. Hard Times, exemplifies this in the context of a Women’s Prison in the grand state of California.

Hard Time at Tehachapi: California’s First Women’s Prison by Kathleen A. Cairns

  • · Hardcover: 224 pages
  • · Publisher: University of New Mexico Press (April 16, 2009)
  • · ISBN-10: 0826345727
  • · ISBN-13: 978-0826345721

The Author, Kathleen A. Cairns, is another local for me and a Professor in Women’s History at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. I am going to try and contact her as soon as the move settles down.