In 1883, Clara Barton, the much-admired founder of the American branch of the Red Cross, accepted a position as interim superintendent of Massachusetts' Reformatory for Women, Sherborn, built 10 years earlier on the Sherborn-Framingham line. She did so at the request of Governor Benjamin Butler, who, although required to hire a female superintendent, feared that the task of disciplining 224 fallen women -- unlike their male counterparts, they were widely seen as being unreformable -- would prove too tough for anybody less capable.
Yet these were not hardened criminals. As Jamaica Plain-based journalist Cristina Rathbone points out in ''A World Apart," a searching critique of living conditions past and present at MCI-Framingham (as Sherborn is now called), only three of Barton's charges had been convicted for violent crimes. The others, first-generation immigrants locked up for drunkenness, prostitution, ''lewdness," and disorderly conduct, were being punished for bawdy misdemeanors -- intoxication, extramarital sex -- that men routinely got away with.
Since they typically commit ''not so much crimes against others as against the offender herself," Barton argued, what women prisoners really need is not harsh discipline but counseling and education. Rathbone, who uses Framingham, the country's oldest running women's prison, as a lens through which to view the plight of all incarcerated women in America, nearly three-quarters of whom are serving time for nonviolent, drug-related offenses, agrees. And by the time they've finished reading the book, even social conservatives might feel the same way.
That's because Rathbone mostly eschews liberal condemnations of America's burgeoning corrections industry and focuses instead on affecting stories about people. For example, we meet Dr. Miriam Van Waters, superintendent of Framingham from 1932 to 1957 and a minister's daughter dedicated to the social gospel of unconditional love for one's neighbor. Despite loud complaints from tough-on-crime politicians, Van Waters launched an occupational-therapy department, a lecture series, even a poetry magazine, and offered classes in parenting, English as a second language, and college-level coursework. One ex-Framingham inmate would write to Van Waters about ''how I found freedom while imprisoned and how real freedom and real imprisonment are conditions within our self and not a matter of locks and keys," a fine definition of rehabilitation, one can't help but think.
Through unsentimental yet sympathetic portraits, Rathbone also introduces us to women who were incarcerated at Framingham during the five years she spent researching and writing the book. Denise, Susan, Riza, Charlene, Carmen, Julie, and Louise are, we're told, a representative sample of female prisoners today: Mostly poor women of color, all but one convicted of nonviolent offenses, several serving mandatory drug sentences; a few are mothers, and one is engaged in a semi-consensual affair with a prison guard. And each one is, as a result of her own bad decisions, ''at least partially defeated by the horror that ran through her life's center," as Rathbone puts it.
Rathbone's first book, ''On the Outside Looking In" (1998) chronicled a year at an inner-city public high school in New York; now she puts readers on the inside of a prison looking out. We see that instead of helping inmates take responsibility for their actions, the isolation and boredom of daily life at Framingham -- where Van Waters-era educational classes and activity-groups day are long gone; creepy male guards take on a romantic aura; and a juvenile obsession with makeup, clothes, and snack food infects everyone -- only makes matters worse, much worse. Whether or not you agree with her that women prisoners ought to be treated differently than men, Rathbone will convince you that these women ought to be treated differently.