In 1932, at the age of 12, my maternal grandmother, a talented young singer, was a victim of sexual abuse. By the time she was 15, she was performing in a Minneapolis nightclub to earn money to help her family survive. It was the Depression, and she was the youngest daughter of a widowed mother, a Norwegian immigrant seamstress.
She’d also had contact with the local police, not as a victim of sexual abuse but as a “delinquent.” According to documents I reviewed in the course of conducting research for a book about my family’s history, by ninth grade she’d come to the attention of the county for skipping school, staying out past curfew and sometimes failing to come home.
If any professionals considered the possibility that the behavior changes may have been the result of trauma, they failed to record it. Instead, the court system focused on minor “status offenses” like truancy and curfew violations. Then, at 15, according to her court records, my young grandmother was impregnated by a 35-year-old nightclub manager. Deemed “incorrigible” by the court, she was committed to a girl’s juvenile detention facility — Minnesota Home School for Girls, in Sauk Centre, Minn., where she was to remain until age 21.
According to the yearly report filed by the detention facility to the Minnesota Board of Control, in 1935 my grandmother was one of 101 new inmates, ages 9 to 19. Of those 101 girls, 88 were committed for “immorality,” an offense that didn’t exist for boys. Four, including my grandmother, were committed for incorrigibility, and two for vagrancy. Only three were committed for crimes against properties or persons. All of them were sentenced to be detained until the age of 21. Among those girls, a few, like my grandmother, were pregnant.
Within the institution, according to the Handbook of American Institutions for Delinquent Juveniles, the rehabilitative training the girls received consisted of a basic education, field work, barn work, institutional maintenance and a rigorous course of training to prepare the girls for “homemaking and domestic service.” Upon completion, generally near the age of 18, they were eligible to be paroled as servants in private homes until age 21. Punishments in my grandmother’s institution included solitary confinement, restricted diets, slapping and forced immersions in tubs of cold water.
Once a week the girls were allowed to send a letter home; every two weeks they could receive a letter in return. All mail was censored by the staff. All young mothers were required to breastfeed their infants for three months. After that period, their children, including my mother, were taken away and placed elsewhere.
In researching my grandmother’s life, I was shocked to learn of the little-known history of incarcerating girls for immorality and similar minor status offenses such as incorrigibility and subjecting them to disturbingly long sentences. But what happened to her happened to many other young women across America. In a similar institution in Beloit, Kan., as reported in The Hutchinson News in 1937, girls who were considered “oversexed” were subjected to forced sterilization for “the best interest of society.” In New York, a young entertainer named Ella Fitzgerald, who biographers suspect was abused by her stepfather, was declared “ungovernable” by the authorities and held at the New York State Training School for Girls, where discipline routinely included beatings and solitary confinement.
In the case of many of the incarcerated girls considered “sex delinquents” in the parlance of the time, the men and boys — including fathers, uncles, grandfathers, neighbors, brothers, teachers, ministers, bosses — responsible for their abuse often went unpunished.
Times have changed since the 1930s, and girls’ experiences in the criminal justice system have too. Yet echoes of my grandmother’s time remain. According to the report “The Sexual Abuse to Prison Pipeline,” published by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, the Ms. Foundation for Women and Rights4Girls, girls in the criminal justice system are disproportionately victims of sexual violence. In addition, like my grandmother and her fellow female juvenile inmates across America in 1935, girls often enter the criminal justice system for minor status offenses like running away, truancy and curfew violations that are themselves responses to abuse. Although girls account for only 15 percent of the juvenile detention population, they are 38 percent of the youth detained for status offenses.
In 1935, when my grandmother was sentenced, Americans knew little about what happened in the institutions where girls like her were held. Even now, we know little of this history. And how much do we know about the lives of girls currently detained? In my grandmother’s time, the institution for girls was under state control. At present, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, nearly half of all detention facilities in the United States are private. According to that same report, nearly half of these training schools and detention centers reported the use of isolation to control behavior. The solitary confinement my grandmother and her peers endured in 1935 continues, as does the traumatizing strip search she was subjected to upon admission. And consistent with my grandmother’s time, juvenile detention facilities still lack adequate mental health professionals able to care for the special needs of the large population of girls who have been victimized. In the urgent and thoughtful calls for juvenile justice reform responsive to the needs of girls, I recognize a system that has failed victimized girls for more than a century.
During the time my grandmother was incarcerated in the juvenile detention facility in Minnesota, girls of color made up 12 percent of the committed population in a state that according to the 1930 census was 99.2 percent white. Today, girls of color continue to be disproportionately affected by the sexual-abuse-to-prison pipeline at alarming rates. According to the Rights4Girls fact sheet, girls of color now account for 62 percent of the girls who are in residential placement.
The stories of my grandmother and the thousands of other girls incarcerated for “immorality” and “incorrigibility” in the early part of the 20th century for shockingly long sentences have mostly been lost. Their reports of abuse by boys and men may have been recorded in their files, but in the end, it was the girls who were considered “in need of reform.” Even now, as I continue my research, I encounter people who refer to them as “bad girls.” Few if any of my grandmother’s peers are alive to tell their stories, or to witness the many brave victims of sexual assault and abuse coming forward today. Nor are they here to see perpetrators continue to go unpunished. If they were, I doubt they’d be surprised.