Like hordes of other American pop culture consumers, I’m watching—and loving—the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. The show, set at a minimum security women’s prison, explores the daily struggles of a diverse cast of female inmates, as well as their keepers. It’s a thoughtful and very funny look at those who have broken the law and those tasked with enforcing the law.
Orange is interested in realism, at least to the extent that Hollywood allows it. Sure, there’s a healthy dose of sex, drugs, and violence. But it’s a far cry from how popular culture has treated imprisoned women in the past, usually with a mix of insecurity and lurid fascination. Orange is light years beyond the 1970s exploitation films Women in Cages and The Big Doll House.
While Orange has captured and inspired massive popular interest in women behind bars, this story has existed since the earliest days of American history. Starting in the late 1700s, Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Prison held male and female offenders. Eastern State received its first two women on the same day in 1831, two years after the penitentiary opened.
Inmates 73 and 74, Amy Rogers and Henrietta Johnson, arrived at Eastern State on April 30, 1831. Rogers received a sentence of three years for manslaughter. Originally from Delaware, she was 21 years old, mixed-race, and previously employed as a washerwoman. Johnson, also sentenced for manslaughter, was a 20-year-old black woman from Philadelphia.
Rogers and Johnson were the first of over 800 women who called Eastern State home throughout the penitentiary’s 142-year history. At least nine female inmates gave birth to children at Eastern State.
Women’s crimes mirrored men’s crimes, and included larceny, counterfeiting, arson, keeping a bawdy house, and murder. Women and men lived in cellblocks segregated by sex, and had little to no contact with each other. Even so, they lived somewhat parallel lives: both groups labored, exercised in their respective yards, received religious counsel, and enjoyed modest entertainments, like moving picture shows. Sometimes female inmates engaged in physical fights with each other or displayed antagonistic behavior toward prison guards.
While these stories might surprise us because of the cultural expectations we have of women, their histories are no more lurid than their male counterparts’ histories. They remind me that while orange is (currently) the new black, these stories are as old as America.
Historic Site Researcher
Image: Inmate B-2675, Delia Gilmore, served time at Eastern State Penitentiary from 1905-1907 for arson.