Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)




Faculty of Arts

First Advisor

Not applicable

Advisor Role

Not applicable


Treatment of women prisoners in the 1880’s was largely dependent on the general attitudes towards the importance of their roles in society. In late nineteenth century Toronto the expected roles of women of all classes were those of wife and mother within the home and, to a very limited extent, of worker within the community. The responses and behaviour of women, which naturally was dependent upon and reflective of the circumstances within which they existed, nonetheless influenced society’s conception of what types of female behaviour were considered criminal and with and for what women were charged and committed, namely, actions considered to be disruptive to the family unit. An examination of the backgrounds and lifestyles of the women who ultimately were incarcerated in one of Toronto’s female penal institutions, the Toronto Gaol or the Andrew Mercer Reformatory for Women, shows an appreciable difference when compared statistically to the average Toronto or Ontario female. Moreover their divergent behaviour was such that it was easy to interpret it as a disruptive factor to the stability of the family unit in general.

As long as the natural mother was virtually the only means of raising children and the maternal role therefore of vital importance, female inmates were subjected to fairly rigorous programmes of rehabilitation in efforts to teach them their proper roles and prepare them for an eventual reintegration into the community and hopefully into their traditional functions.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century unsuccessful attempts at adult reformation and an increasing desire to control socially all deviant members of a rapidly changing society culminated in a definite shift in emphasis during this period from a focus on the adult offender to one on the juvenile delinquent. Despite a great deal of cooperative effort by penal officials and prison reformers influenced by religious and secular motives, crime was thought to be still on the increase and the negative effects of urbanisation still on the rise. Rather than questioning their own motives for their penal activities, the officials and even more significantly the reformers believed that further control was necessary.

The urban reform techniques of bureaucratisation and professionalisation, together with and a part of a growing faith in the power of institutions, culminated in the development of institutional facilities to take care of the child. With the development of legal and practical means to take the neglected or deviant child away from what was considered to be unhealthy surroundings, declared to be caused by irresponsible parents, the traditional role of the women in these lower classes was potentially by effectively usurped by the institution functioning as a sort of surrogate mother. While it was readily admitted that the natural mother was by far preferable when at all possible, when attempts failed at training women to be good mothers it was assumed that the institution would provide an alternative which would save the child from an otherwise inevitable career in crime.

Obviously the inability of prison reformers to provide effective changes to the Toronto penal institutions or the Ontario prison systems as a whole was a failure affecting the prisoners more than these urban reformers. Since the primary object always had been social control, the tactical shift to the child-saving movement merely ensured a greater possibility of success for the reforming classes. Emphasis on the immortality and incompetence of parents helped guarantee the continuance of societal interference on this persistently existing deviant segment of society. While the ultimate or long term affects upon female prisoners is not known, one thing is clear. Once actual facilities were coupled with faith in institutionalisation, a re-direction of efforts and interests on the part of professional and amateur reformers occurred—towards the child, but away from the woman.

Convocation Year