The Worcester Ward: Violence Against Women

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

The Worcester Ward: Violence Against Women

by the Coalition to Stop Institutional Violence

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 10, No. 6, November/December 1978, p. 8–19

I originally entered a mental institution voluntarily, believing I could get help there. At that time I was very unhappy; clinically it’s called depressed. In retrospect I would prefer to call it a terrible unhappiness with the state of my life. I was so unhappy that I was unable to get out bed for days and weeks at a time. Within a few months of institutionalization I had been transformed from a woman who could not get out of bed to a woman who was screaming, kicking, trying to break down doors and break windows. 

In the institution I found out that I was systematically lied to about myself and about the program. When I objected, I was ignored.

The last straw came over a seemingly trivial incident. I was told that I would not be allowed to go on a picnic that our group had been eagerly planning and discussing. I had not been told up to this point that I was not going to be allowed to go, even though I had been taking part in all these discussions. It was not the simple incident of not being allowed to go on the picnic, but the cumulative result of all these lies and deprivations. I started to shout at the staff members why I was so angry about being deprived and I was totally ignored. So I went into my room and I picked up a lamp, a little desk lamp, and I broke out the windows in the door to my room … I had been very angry about those windows when I saw them because they meant that by coming into the institution I had been deprived of even my right to privacy. So I broke out these windows and I got a very tiny cut on my thumb … I finally got some attention from the staff … two staff members came and grabbed me … they told me that because I had this injury they were going to give me a tetanus shot. They did not explain why this was necessary, they just said “you are going to be given a shot” and that made me more angry and I ended up having a fight with four or five staff members. I never knew that I had that kind of strength. 

I think it was the anger, the depth of the anger, that created that kind of strength. What were my violent acts? I was hitting. I was striking out at the people who were keeping me imprisoned, lying to me, and then denying they had lied to me. I was harming the physical building itself … I broke windows and banged on walls because I saw the building as a prison. I can imagine how such an incident would be written up on my hospital records … “Patient broke windows … was subdued by staff … was given tetanus shot.” Nothing about why. Nothing about what led up to it. Nobody looked into the source of my very legitimate anger at being denied human and civil rights like the right to communication and the right to visitation. 

There are now two ominous little notations on my hospital records. They say “sui” and “homi” … suicidal and homicidal. Now, I never actively tried to kill myself although at that time I was so unhappy that I certainly thought of it as a viable alternative. Although I did strike staff members in rage at the mistreatment I was receiving; no one was ever injured. I think that’s a long way from homicidal behavior. 

What happened to me is not unique. Mental institutions are very efficient at transforming people from merely unhappy people into “dangerous, violent” people … to use their terminology. Yes, I was trying to defend myself against the people who were keeping me imprisoned; who were torturing me. 

If this woman were in a Massachusetts psychiatric institution today, it is quite likely that she would be targeted for what is euphemistically called the Special Consultation and Treatment Program for Woman (SCTPW) or the Worcester unit. This proposed unit is a joint venture of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health (DMH) and Department of Correction (DOC). It is defined as a maximum security “treatment”1 unit for women “who have by reason of severe mental illness a recent and repeated history of behaviors harmful to themselves or others and for whom all attempts at treatment in existing facilities have failed.”2

It should be noted that the Department of Correction is responsible for the blueprints of the unit. The place is clearly a prison. On the fifth floor of an old state institution is a long ward of open dayrooms on one side and individual “adjustment” rooms on the other. The exit is guarded by three metal doors and $50,000 worth of steel security equipment. The isolation cells marked “adjustment” rooms make clear that what is intended is for women to adjust and become the way staff say they should be—adjust to this grossly abnormal institutional setting in order to be called normal and “well”. 

Five Years of Struggle 

The history of this proposed unit goes back beyond 1973. It is easiest to trace, however, by starting with the attempts in 1973 by DOC to commit women to Bridgewater State Hospital. Bridgewater by law is restricted to men. In 1973 DOC illegally shipped a number of women from the state prison for women to Bridgewater. They were returned to the prison through legal action taken against DMH and DOC. Annual attempts to change the laws so that women could be sent to Bridgewater failed as recently as 1977, even though the Worcester unit site was first proposed in late 1976. Since that time, there has been a moratorium on Bridgewater legislation regarding the transfer of women. 

The basis for the current plan for a unit for “violent” women was created by DMH and DOC in the fall of 1976. This was done by an internal administrative move, which made it possible to bypass a special legislative study and a public hearing on the nature of the proposal. The chairperson of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, in a special meeting, generously offered start-up money of $150,000. Despite increasing public opposition, subsequent program money was appropriated, requiring legislative approval of only one line item in the massive state budget and avoiding review or statutory approval. In short a “program” that could not make it legitimately through the front door of the legislature was slipped in the back door. 

It is clear that DOC and DMH are deadly serious about achieving their unit at all costs. 

Throughout 1973-76, the attempts to create a unit for women labelled violent were opposed by an ad hoc coalition of legislators and advocates, representing the prisoners’ and psychiatric inmates’ rights movement, and the Women’s Movement. In 1976 when it was clear the state was increasingly committed to a unit, women from the same three areas of advocacy came together to form an ongoing, formal coalition, the Coalition to Stop Institutional Violence (CSIV). The Coalition’s primary goal is to stop the proposed unit through education and public mobilization, petitions and demonstrations, legal and legislative work, and support for alternative shelters and healing places for women. Through the use of all these methods over the last five years, the Coalition and its growing number of supporters have prevented the opening of this proposed unit. 

One of the most significant accomplishments of the Coalition has been to force DMH to go through the Department of Public Health’s Determination of Need process. This review process is required by law before any new health care facility, representing major capital expenditure or substantial change in service, can be built. DMH was forced to this public review through a taxpayer’s law suit filed against them. Determination of Need requires an applicant, in this case DMH, to prove concrete need of the particular facility or service desired and offers opponents, organized into taxpayer groups, the opportunity to contest an applicant’s position. 

Based on their history, we don’t believe the DOC and DMH can truly assist women without radically altering their approach. The proposed Worcester unit does not represent such a change. DMH presents as a rationale for the unit the need to provide “effective clinical treatment to … patients whom the system has failed to treat adequately for many years.”3 We can all agree with them that the system fails as well as oppresses women, and children and men as well, and the two departments have contributed to that failure. The return rate to psychiatric institutions and prisons, the number of people who never leave them and the conditions of the lives of those who do. are well-known realities of that oppression. 


The proposed Worcester unit is not an aberration or an abuse of psychiatry, but an example of psychiatric ideology. Psychiatry claims to be apolitical, yet is highly political because it denies the reality of oppression and power relationships or the need for societal change. Psychiatrists are part of a political economy in which we are supposed to give up power to specialists. Psychiatrists are specialists on how we should think. They are in fact mind police, who act to protect the interests of the ruling class. 

Much of psychiatry, even in private therapy, is based on the concept of a “sick” person, the patient or client, and the “healthy” professional phson. In the community, “sick” people are separated from “well” people so that even those not involved as workers in psychiatry see themselves as different from the “mentally ill”. These “mentally ill” are then further labelled “schizophrenic”, “psychotic”, “obsessive-compulsive”, “manic-depressive”, “border-line”, and on and on. All these terms isolate actions, called symptoms, from a woman’s personhood and entire life; isolate her from other people because she is seen as a frightening object that is other than human. All future actions are seen only in relation to these labels, with other possible social causes discounted. These labels separate a woman from social and political issues as well as from her own pain and confusion. 

The proposed Worcester unit is based on false and sexist assumptions about “normal” behavior for women. DMH talks instead about “behaviorally dangerous” women, indicating their belief that the cause of violence originates from within individual women. This belief forms the basis of the proposed Worcester unit and its “treatment” facilities. 

The power structure of psychiatry becomes clearer when we look at state institutions. Psychiatrists, making the largest salaries, make the decisions; but it is the workers in descending order of status, training, and pay who have increasingly the most, or only, contact with inmates. Workers, often in a ratio of 1:20, are expected to police inmates even if they would prefer to relate to inmates as people they respect and care about. Thus, workers are victims of their hierarchical and alienating work institutions. The presence of a few well intentioned, skilled, and caring staff does not change this basic structure of psychiatry whether it is the proposed Worcester unit or any other facility. This phenomenon is not unlike our larger society where middle management “professionals” maintain control over the working class, the young, poor and Third World people for the ruling class. Inmates of course have the least power over what is done with their lives. 

Eighty-five percent of psychiatrists in all psychiatric institutions are men and nearly all are white. Women, Third World people, poor and old people are found in larger proportions in state institutions than in the larger society. For example, non-whites are only 12% of the population of Massachusetts, but comprise 23% of the state mental institution admissions in 1975.4

Community “mental health” centers can reach far more people with drugs and therapy than state institutions ever could. The administrators and psychiatrists of these centers, however, are not from the working-class communities in which they often are placed, but are generally from white and privileged communities. The centers once again try to channel individuals into dependence on the “healthy” elite. They discourage awareness that the personal is political and discourage self-help in the true sense of the word. Thus they actually discourage community action on many issues. They focus on individual “sickness” rather than, for example, unemployment and lack of child care. 

Just as all women are reacting to the tensions and brutalities of everyday life, many women who have in the past been classified “violent” or “psychotic” were simply relating to the tensions and brutality of the lives they led or to conditions in the institutions in which they were incarcerated. The authoritarian environment of the institutions is only a reflection of the world outside. The power relationships are the same. Women still have little control over their lives or bodies and consequently have little power.

To focus on the actions of a few women labelled violent is to obscure the violence of our society that is capable of driving each of us to assaultive behavior. Who of us has not struck out at self or others in rage or frustration? The Coalition does not deny the occurrence of such behavior. But our response has to be grounded in a societal analysis of the cause of such behavior. Building a facility solely for security and control is the categorical opposite of solving societal problems and supporting women as they resolve their crises. 

Psychiatric Prisons

Psychiatric institutions are the most brutal side of psychiatry. The poor are housed in state institutions. The living conditions are intolerable—bad food, over- and under-heating, and generally old buildings in poor condition. Physical, psychic, and sexual abuse are a constant in inmates’ lives. There is an unusually high death rate in psychiatric institutions. Although the grounds are sometimes lovely, they are out in the country, hard to reach for friends and relatives without cars. Inmates are only sometimes allowed the “privilege” of being out on the grounds. While there has been a decline in state institutional populations, there are countless people in the United States who have been locked up ten years or longer. People released from the institutions are generally pressured, encouraged, or threatened into the aforementioned “mental health” centers where much of the “treatment” continues. 

People are treated by specialists in art therapy, music therapy, dance therapy and talk therapy. This alleviates boredom perhaps, but it often avoids the real reasons why the person was originally seeking help or forced into the institution. 

Private institutions are for those with money and good insurance policies. While looking different, nicer and maybe seeming less oppressive, they operate on the same principle and towards the same goals. 

Contrary to the stereotype perpetuated by the media, the vast majority of people locked down in mental institutions have not committed or been accused of acts of violence. Rather they have been incarcerated on the judgement of a psychiatrist about possible future behavior, without benefit of a jury of their peers. Or they have turned in desperation to psychiatry in an attempt to resolve their unhappiness. 

Institutional psychiatry gains control over people in several interconnected ways, through the use of brutal and dangerous “treatment” including many forms of involuntary, behavior modifying techniques and through use of the concept called “medical model”. 

Because this article grows out of the struggle to defeat a proposed behavior modification women’s unit, we have chosen to talk predominantly of women. We recognize, as part of our work, the oppression of institutionalized men and children, but realize that our choice to focus upon women’s lives and issues is not made in a political or social vacuum. As feminists, we know that the rising violence against women in this culture is not unrelated to the strength of the current Women’s Movement. Patriarchal attempts to keep women in the role of second class citizens—whether these be manifested by individual men or by society’s institutions—will continue to rise as women fight off the sexism which envelops our lives. 

We have every reason to believe that as the fight gets harder, the male power holders in society will extend their labelling to include every women who participates in the fight. This has started already. We need only look at the admissions guidelines for the new maximum security unit at Alderson Federal Prison (similar to the proposed Worcester Unit, incidentally) to see that women who participate in “sophisticated political groups” are prime candidates. There are no guarantees that women doing political organizing will not be labelled “violent” and sent to units such as the Alderson unit and the proposed Worcester Unit. 

Yet, at the same time that the violence against women is increasing, it is the Women’s Movement which has given rise to the types of self-help programs that are truly responding to the needs of women in crisis. By insisting that shelters for battered women, transitional residences for. women in emotional crisis, etc., are to be woman-run, woman-controlled, and with a philosophy that strives to empower women rather than strip them of what little power they do have, the Women’s Movement has created models for social change which meet women’s real needs. 



The most prevalent form of treatment in institutions is drugging. Ninety-five to 98% of all inmates are drugged, most often with a group of drugs called phenothiazines, (thorazines, etc.). No one claims these drugs cure anything. Their stated purpose is to make people more amenable to “talk therapy”. Their effect, though, is to numb, smother and control all thoughts and feelings. Most people are drugged immediately on admission to psychiatric institutions. The real purpose of these drugs is to break down defenses built up in an effort to cope with one’s environment. These defenses are defined as “inappropriate” by medical standards. 

The side effects of these drugs are their main effects. Nearly everyone given the drugs gets some of these problems: blurred vision, shuffling gait, muscle spasms, tension, need to walk constantly, fatigue, thirst, weight gain, sexual dysfunction and many more including tardive dyskinesia or sudden death. Over one-half get tardive dyskinesia, a kind of brain damage resulting in grotesque symptoms.5 Victims are unable to control certain movements. They pucker and smack their lips and protrude their tongue. For some their bodies twist, their legs jiggle and shake, and their arms flail. This brain destruction is entirely caused by doctors. 

These drugs are used in all closed institutions—reform schools, nursing homes, and prisons. They are also used on “outpatients”, in public schools, and community “mental health” centers. “Minor” tranquilizers such as valium and librium are used by millions—mostly women—through private therapy or family doctors. The bulk of the profits of drug companies in the United States are made on psychiatric drugs.6 These drug pushers have an operating profit margin twice, and in some cases three times, as large as that of some of the other major United States corporations.7

Seclusion is often used as “treatment” although in Massachusetts it is restricted by law to emergency situations (as determined by staff). The seclusion room is a cheerless and cold cubicle with a mattress thrown on the floor. When you are put into a seclusion room, you are typically thrown on the floor, stripped and given a shot of a phenothiazine. Then the door is closed and you are left—naked, shivering and helpless. It is a totally humiliating experience. Seclusion is used as punishment for infractions of even the most minor nature. By separating patients and isolating the rebellious, seclusion becomes a direct attack on inmate solidarity. 

Other overt, brutal forms of “treatment” and behavior modification are psychosurgery, restraint and shock (running an electric current through the brain causing a grand mal seizure). Shock causes destruction of brain cells and often permanent memory loss. Psychosurgery is still done—about 500 cases a year in private practice. HEW is considering guidelines which would expand the legal use of psychosurgery to institutionalized people and to children. Despite assurances that psychosurgery will not be used on women at the proposed Worcester unit, it is perfectly legal in Massachusetts and could be done at a facility other than the proposed unit. 

One of two kinds of restraint is most often used: the straitjacket, which ties an inmate to herself, or four-point restraint in which an inmate is strapped down by bindings on all four limbs. Once restained the woman is usually left in seclusion. 

Every move a person makes from morning to night can be, and often is, controlled in an institution. Not only through drugging but also through regimentation, observation by staff, and through the privilege system whereby rights are taken away and later given back for “good behavior” as privileges. Good behavior usually means obeying staff, not doing things considered strange, and not showing anger. In fact, “good behavior” is institutional behavior, docile behavior. Gradually, as an inmate conforms, she is allowed contact with the outside in the form of letters, calls, visits, walks, or the ability to get off the ward to smoke or shower. This conformity is called “getting well.” 

Medical Model

One of the reasons that there are not many laws to protect the rights of inmates is the prevalent concept that what is being done in mental institutions is handling specific problems not unlike medical problems. The phrase “medical model” refers to these comparisons, made by professionals and lay people in the “mental health” field, between physical illness and “mental illness”. 

The medical model holds that physical illness and “mental illness” are comparable, and that both are specific problems which have a specific cause and can be “treated” with a specific intervention, usually drugs.8 According to this medical model, a troubled person is “sick” and therefore needs the care of a “doctor”. “Mental illness,” it is believed, has recognizable “symptoms,” and can be “diagnosed,” “treated” and “cured”. 

People who do things we do not understand or agree with are simply that. Being able to call a person “sick” puts a comfortable distance between the “normal” people and the “crazy” people—until the day when the “normal” people step out of line and get labelled “crazy” themselves. To use the word “sick” in describing an individual whose behavior disturbs us is to perpetrate an abuse against that person’s integrity. If the forces of psychiatry are then called in to alter the person’s behavior, the person’s freedom is violated as well. 

The use of the medical model serves to mystify people’s pain, and to create the impression that only professionals are capable of understanding that pain. It may confuse people in institutions who feel angry and abused and are constantly being told that it is for their own good and that the “doctors” know what they are doing. Friends and relatives of inmates often buy into the lie, having their loved ones committed against their will. 

In these ways, it has become difficult for anyone to share subjective experiences of an unusual or frightening nature, for fear of being labelled “sick”. It then becomes doubly difficult for psychiatric inmates to even recognize that they share similar problems and a common oppressor, let alone find collective solutions to their problems. 

Many people do not understand the inherently oppressive nature of the medical model of “mental illness” and involuntary “treatment”. Some people who are committed to working for social change fail to see the basic connection between psychiatric oppression and other forms of oppression—fail to see that the institution of psychiatry is part of the very system we are all fighting. 

Women and Psychiatry 

A large part of the professional attitude that women are inherently less “mentally healthy” than men can be traced back to Freud who legitimated the belief that women experience greater difficulty than men in resolving the issues of psychosexual development. Freudian theory, which continues to shape much of current psychiatric thought, maintains a traditional view of the “normal” woman as wife and mother. Women are viewed exclusively in terms of our (hetero) sexuality and reproductive function; other aspects of our lives and personhood are either ignored or seen as less significant than our psychosexual development. For a woman to attempt to assert her independence or autonomy, to reject marriage or motherhood, to be a Lesbian or to begin to take control of the circumstances of her own life is seen in the Freudian view, as evidence of a “masculinity complex.” 

Though much of Freudian theory has fallen into disrepute, clinicians in general still view women as less “healthy” than men. In a now-classic study by lnge Broverman and her associates in 1970,9 it was found that clinicians’ concept of a mature adult was identical to their concept of a mature man, but their view of a mature woman was quite different. She was more dependent and passive, and less assertive and adventurous than her male counterpart. 

Professional views of women’s “mental health” are bound by sexist bias. For members of the psychiatric establishment, a “normal,” “healthy” woman is a “feminine woman”, one who does not necessarily develop or use the full range of her talents, and one who is less than an autonomous, independent, strong individual. Women who deviate from acceptable standards of behavior are “sick”. This is a prime example of science being used by members of the dominant class to justify their biases. It leads to subsequent oppression and punishment of those who do not conform to their limited notions of what constitutes “healthy” behavior. 

What these views mean for women in institutional settings, whether psychiatric or “correctional” is that, in order to gain their freedom, they often must adopt the pretense (if not the reality) of “feminine”, “ladylike” and therefore “healthy” behavior. Those who refuse to do so are punished in the name of “treatment” and those who deviate markedly are sent to even more controlled settings and places like the proposed Worcester unit, where, what real needs they may have for emotional support and help in a time of crisis will not even begin to be addressed. 


From 1976-1977, the Coalition was told that no women from the state schools for the mentally retarded would be sent to the proposed unit. Then, in January 1978, suddenly 45% of the women being screened for the proposed unit were being drawn from those state schools and institutions. It became clear to us at that point that our accusations against the Department of Mental Health were true: that the proposed unit, if opened, would indeed be a dumping ground for all state institutions. Furthermore, the reasons for “mental retardation”, like the reasons for “mental illness” are socially defined and can therefore be extremely vague. We can only speculate as to how many women are institutionalized today as “mentally retarded” who may have been early victims of child abuse, neglect, repressive school and learning environments. The fact remains clear: that DMC and DOC plan to combine women prisoners, psychiatric inmates, and women labelled mentally retarded—groups with extremely diverse needs—into one catch-all “therapeutic environment” where each woman will not only take on the “violent” label, but will also take on the labels already assigned to other women around her. 

Given this framework, it is not difficult to predict which women will be sent to the proposed Worcester unit. They will be those who DMH and DOC find troublesome for any number of reasons. They will be women in institutions who demand their rights and who fight back when those rights are violated; women who are justifiably angry at the condition of their lives both outside and inside the institutions in which they are incarcerated. They will be women who direct their anger at others, striking out in pain and rage and self-defense, and also women who turn their anger inward, hurting themselves because they have been belittled, brutalized, and have led overwhelmingly impoverished lives. They will be poor women, Black women, Hispanic women, Lesbians—any woman who lacks sufficient money and privilege to escape incarceration by the State. 

Currently, the popular media is playing up the supposed presence of the “new, violent woman.” Professional journals have taken up this new “problem” as well. Many theorize that women’s violence is increasing as a result of the Women’s Movement. As women become “liberated,” so the theory goes, they will begin to adopt “male” patterns of violence and criminality. This theory ostensibly has been used to justify the construction of new maximum security settings for women such as the proposed Worcester unit. 

A class of women will be created to fill the “need” for the smaller units being proposed all over the country. In 1972, it was estimated by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health that there might be 6-10 women a year in need of the proposed unit. At present, the current project director is engaged in consultation concerning approximately 50 candidates for the proposed unit. In 5 years, the mere notion that a unit might someday exist has increased the number of women labelled “violent” by 500%! We have every reason to believe that the expansion will continue. 

Feminists recognize the notion of the “new violent woman” for what it is: a media creation which is part of the growing backlash against the Women’s Movement. The evidence shows that the rate of violent crime by women is not increasing.10 Yet often we see stories in the press of women’s violence being on the rise. 

These reports serve as reminders to women of what can happen to them if they “go too far”. In the late 1800’s, when women’s education became an issue during the First Wave of the Women’s Movement, the newspapers in this country were full of stories of women who fell into “wantonness, sin and destruction” as a result of education.11 The similarities between those stories of the 1800’s and today’s “violent women” stories are striking.  


As one psychiatrist said: “Most often a patient is labelled ‘dangerous’ or ‘violent’ because of inordinate staff anxiety in a staff person. In other words, there may have been actual provocation, or the patient may have been subjected to a series of binds to which an act of violence is an emotionally healthy response.” 

It is not insignificant that the perpetrators of the proposed Worcester unit try to dismiss the vocal opposition to the unit by labelling us “a bunch of dykes.” Women who do not conform to “acceptable” standards of behavior have long been called Lesbians. Angry, vocal, assertive women have always been perceived as threatening to those who would maintain the status quo of male supremacy. As women begin to organize and chip away at the system which oppresses us, those with a vested interest in maintaining that system will continue to throw out the labels: “dyke”, “crazy”, “wild”, “violent”. Labelling takes one aspect of a woman and makes that her entire identification so that everything she says or does can be discounted. This labelling happens on some level to all women who step out of the “female” line. Our response to these labels is to turn them around and use them for positive self-identification. Rather than responding by denying that we are angry, we can say sure we’re angry and it’s ok to be that way. 

While increase of violence committed by women is a myth, the increase of violence against women is a stark reality. Physical violence against women, in the form of battering, rape, and assault continues to rise. Psychological violence, sexual harassment, violations of women’s integrity, have always been our daily reality. Institutional violence in psychiatric institutions, in prisons, in schools, and in the media is increasing. 

The proposed Worcester unit is an example of institutional violence at its most insidious. Designed to be a maximum security, behavior modification unit for women already in institutional settings, it will be a dumping ground for women who refuse to be broken, women for whom “all else has failed” in altering their “deviant” behavior. 

Prisons and the Worcester Unit 

The Worcester Unit, from both the physical plans and from the Determination of Need Application, clearly will become a prison. And not unlike psychiatric institutions, prisons are the easiest way to isolate, warehouse, and remove poor people, angry people, people trying desperately to survive in a system that has no economic use for them. 

Historically women have rarely been imprisoned for violent crimes. The overwhelming majority (85%) of women in prisons, jails, and awaiting trial (15,000) are imprisoned for acts directly related to economic survival: prostitution, larceny, forgery, shoplifiting, receiving stolen goods, drugs.12 These economic “crimes” which are directly related to the economics of survival form the basis of a no-win situation for most women who are imprisoned. A woman who has been imprisoned for prostitution and larceny, who has no job skills, two kids to support, no apartment to live in, no job, and $50 in her pocket when she leaves prison is asked to survive in an impossible set-up without going back to her network of support from the street life which may well be the only network she knows. Yet, there is a move on in this state and throughout the country to build more cages. In 1978, the Massachusetts legislature passed a budget appropriating nearly $1 million to “renovate” the state prison for women. This included $300,000 for a new security system in the women’s living space and over $600,000 to substantially change the structure of the maximum security wing. Most prison budgets in the country spend less than 10¢ of every dollar for vocational and educational training, health care, and human needs. If all potential cell space in that wing is renovated, there will be room for 40 maximum security cells—enough to cage approximately 50% of the women at a time. 

Massachusetts can now boast of a full range of prisons from maximum-minimum security to self-policed mini-prisons set in the communities (but not controlled by those communities). In the mini-prisons, called pre-release centers, the threat of being shipped back to the tighter institutions keeps prisoners in line and in constant fear. A whole step system for men exists within each separate prison as well as within the entire system and culminates in Bridgewater. Without the proposed Worcester unit the system is incomplete for women. Clearly the struggle against the proposed Worcester unit and the new max cells at the prison are one and the same. 

“No Rights for Locked Women” 

One of the strategies developed over the past two years by the Coalition has been to oppose the opening of the proposed unit on the grounds of civil liberties violations. Upon close examination of the DMH application, we find that there are no commitment, transfer, admission, or discharge standards. Also, women prisoner/patients will not have the right to refuse “treatment”, which can range from drugging to psychosurgery. There are no guarantees of regular visiting hours, outside recreation, mail “privileges”, and many other things which keep a woman in contact with the outside world. 

There are many behavior modification units across the country which, although some have existed for only a short while, have given reason to believe that it is impossible to preserve people’s civil liberties in a locked and forced environment despite the best precautions and intentions. In Massachusetts, there were in 1975 alone three successful civil rights suits against Bridgewater, a “model” for the proposed Worcester Unit. Still pending here also are the series of constitutional claims of the Boston State Hospital inmates in Rogers v. Macht, which center on the issues of use of seclusion, forced drugging, and other forced “treatment”. 

Many have responded to the issue of civil rights for locked women in the proposed unit. Peggy Weisberg of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, a Washington D.C.-based group that has researched many such programs, has said: ” … we can only conclude that the proposed Worcester Unit is essentially a behavior control unit for women prisoners … the purpose of which is to make a person less disruptive and more manageable when she returns to Framingham … it has been proven time and time again that these programs simply do not work.” Here in Massachusetts, the Board of the Civil Liberties Union unanimously concluded that the proposal for the Worcester unit “cannot be drafted in a form to withstand constitutional attack”. 

A similar conclusion occurs to nearly everyone who seriously considers the civil rights issues involved in the proposed unit. The totally locked situation by itself is a violation of constitutional rights. 

Where Do We Go From Here 

At a time when the state is cutting back on all social services and simultaneously expanding the prison construction budget, progressive people have no choice but to challenge the trend of delivering “treatment” rather than social justice. Delaying or preventing construction or proliferation of small behavior modification units is in itself important and necessary work. Much of the Coalition’s time is taken up with this struggle directly: lobbying, working within the Determination of Need process, mobilizing opposition to speak at and attend public hearings, writing articles, doing public educationals. We know that these small units will increase the repressiveness of the present system; they would further isolate women already incarcerated, women already subject to the behavior modification, the degradation, the forced drugging which is the standard practice in all psychiatric and prison facilities. 

Ultimately, then, our goal is to dismantle the whole violent system. Our vision demands a strategy that includes four aspects: anti-institutional work, support work for women already incarcerated, support work for genuine alternatives for people in crisis or distress, and, finally, personal practice to overcome the violence that pervades our daily lives. We need to participate in the expansion of a new culture, a freedom/struggle culture. 

Even as we are working in a larger movement for social change, our daily lives are still very fragmented. It  is a fact of our lives that as individuals we simply cannot respond adequately to the many who are in need of support. The needed networks of support do not yet exist. Our short-term strategy, therefore, must include support for and development of additional transitional shelters.

Built into the capitalist system is the tendency to create sickness, to turn the natural vitality of the body and spirit into a commodity. We may come to accept suffering and our powerless positions within the system as inevitable. Vast education, health, treatment, and corrective industry is maintained to treat “problems” within the individual and to suppress any spontaneous realization of the material and political connections in individuals’ distress. We all live at a pace of life that makes it hard for us to feel beyond what we have been taught. The rage and frustration that we feel is expressed in ways that serve to maintain the system: domestic violence, competition, self-hatred. 

In order to transform society, then, we have to be involved in transforming ourselves as well. We have to generate ways of supporting each other emotionally in the work we do—a hard task when we carry at least a double load of work, political and rent-paying. We have to create safe spaces for ourselves to talk about our fears and frustrations, exploring alternative ways of healing, experimenting with new ways of expressing ourselves, comforting each other, renewing our strength for the struggle without slipping outside of it. We need to be involved in a process of cultural self-analysis in order to develop new forms for cooperative group work to overcome the individualism we were raised on. This is not easy. The inhibitions we were trained in run deep: self-love and other-love is antithetical to commodity accumulation. 

Women in emotional crisis, even women who are suicidal or assaultive, do not need to be imprisoned, drugged, or subjected to shock and behavior modification. These “interventions” only remove us further from our pain and confusion. Women in crisis need programs which offer support, feminist, non-racist counseling, vocational and educational opportunities and much more. These women, like all of us, have been brought up in and put down by a racist, classist, and male supremacist society. We must recognize the role that powerlessness and oppression play in the lives of all women. Women need to be empowered, to change our self-image, to demand, and to be encouraged to take control of our lives and responsibility for our actions. We need our strength to survive in and help change the very society that exploits us. 

The Women’s Community has set up shelters where women are safe from physical assault and have the support to take new directions in their lives. The women of these shelters recognize that emotional crisis happens within a political, social, and economic context. Women who came to the shelters, therefore, are not blamed for their crises, they are supported through them. These shelters for battered women, or for women with alcohol or drug histories were not created specifically as alternatives to the mental health system, but as centers for real support for women in crisis. 

There are very few alternatives to psychiatric institutions. The Elizabeth Stone House in Boston and the Vancouver Emotional Emergency Center (VEEC) in British Columbia are examples of alternatives that have successfully, without the use of medical “treatment” supported people through emotional crisis. 

In her book, On Our Own, (New York: Hawthorn, 1978), Judy Chamberlain describes her own and others experience at VEEC. VEEC was based on the knowledge that all people have emotional crises. The roles of helper and person helped could be interchangeable. Staff used VEEC at crisis times in their own lives, and people who had lived there also became staff. All decisions were made by residents and staff. Staff were available for conversation and support at all times, even in looking for an apartment or finding a job. Above all, people were free to leave whenever they wanted. As soon as they felt they could, they set goals for their stay. These could be revised by the individual at any time. 

We all need to be able to vent our anger about the many injustices we have suffered: healing cannot happen when the expression of anger brings down more punishment. VEEC provided the necessary combination of a warm and caring environment, safe space for the expression of anger and pain, and time away from the pressures of daily life, through which people heal themselves. 

While we generate support for transitional residences, we need to remember the women that are already locked down, and find ways of supporting them in the here and now. This support can take many forms—bringing in fresh and nutritious food, participating in sports or classes, entertainment, regular visits, creating a network of support for families of prisoners and inmates, driving children out to visit their mothers. As we get stronger as a Movement, we can begin to envision more militant actions on backwards—actions taken with the support of psychiatric inmates and prisoners, and progressive (always overworked) staff within the institutions. 

Over time we will create a broad network of people who have suffered in the State’s warehouses or have been touched by alternative methods of handling crisis. But the ripple effect of our cultural work can not overcome the punishment-and-death culture until the extension of the prison State is dismantled. The network of communities, families and friends of prisoners and psychiatric inmates, cultural workers, and advocates of alternatives will sooner or later feel empowered enough to demand that our resources go into truly human services. 

In the meantime, we must battle the State to a standstill on each new prison—”psychiatric” or “correctional”- that it dares to propose. For further information, write: The Coalition to Stop Institutional Violence, c/o The Cambridge Women’s Center, 46 Pleasant Street, Cambridge, MA 02139

The Coalition to Stop Institutional Violence, a coalition of feminists in the Boston area who have major commitments to the Women’s Movement or to the advocacy movements for prisoners and psychiatric inmates, has been successful to date in delaying the construction and opening of a proposed behavior modification unit for women in Worcester, Mass. This unit has been defined as a small maximum security “treatment” facility for so-called “violent” women. 

>> Back to Vol. 10, No. 6 <<


  1. Throughout this article, many traditional concepts that the Coalition challenges appear in quotation marks. We hope that the frequency of the quotation marks is not disruptive to the reader. We have left these concepts in question to illustrate the abundance of psychiatric concepts that need to be seriously criticized
  2. Quoted from the Department of Mental Health’s application for a Certificate of Need for the proposed Worcester Unit. This application is available to the public at the Determination of Need Office, Room 925, 80 Boylston Street, Boston, MA 02116.
  3. op. cit.
  4. Department of Mental Health Admission Statistics, 1975.
  5. See “Epidemiology of Tardive Dyskinesia Part I”, Pineau, R. et. al., Diseases of the Nervous System. Volume 37, No. 34 April, 1976. For an explanation of side effects of Tardive Dyskinesia also see Consumers Guide to Psychiatric Medication, by David Briggs, Project Release Booklet, New York, 1975.
  6. One example of this profiteering is the Smith-Kline Drug Co., whose psychiatric drug sales have doubled in the past five years (Annual Report, 1977). Psychiatric drugs account for 20% of all sales.
  7. We refer readers to The American Health Empire, by the Health Policy Advisory Committee, New York; Vintage Books (Address: 17 Murray Street, NYC) and to Prognosis: Negative, by Kotelchuk of Health PAC for an analysis of the profits of drug companies in relation to and as part of the corporate structure.
  8. Physical medicine as we know it suffers from the same problem – that of zeroing in on one symptom rather than socio-economic causes and than attempting to remove the symptom, often by the use of drugs, without necessarily removing the cause.
  9. See Broverman, Inge, et. al. “Sex Role Stereotypes and Clinical Judgements on Mental Health”, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol. 34, No. I, 1970, pp. 1-7.
  10. In 1960, women constituted 10% of all arrests for violent crime in this country. Fifteen years later, women still accounted for 10% of all arrests in violent crimes. Source: Uniform Crime Reports, 1975, Washington, D.C.
  11. There are several books that have been written about the backlash in the late 1800’s against women becoming educated. For a further review of this, we refer the reader to: I’m Radcliffe! Fly Me! The Seven Sisters and the Failure of Women’s Education, by Liva Baker, New York: MacMillan and Co., 1976; Peculiar Institutions, by Elaine Kendall, New York: G.P. Putnam and Sons, 1975; and Miss Marks and Miss Wooley, by Anna Mary Wells, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1978.
  12. This quote is taken from a 1975 letter written by a New England psychiatrist to the then Director of the Prison Health Project regarding plans to find a place to house “violent” women in Massachusetts institutions. (Coalition files).