Women and prisons in 19th century New Zealand

Lyttelton Gaol from the corner of Oxford and Winchester Streets, about 1900, Palliser family collection, Canterbury Museum, 1991.345.3

The first New Zealand prisons were managed by provincial governments
according to their own standards and resources. Women were imprisoned alongside
men from the outset, although there were always many more male convicts.

National regulations and an Inspector of Prisons were
introduced with centralised government in 1876. Attitudes began to turn towards
reform, and providing prisoners with skills to reintegrate into society. The
National Council of Women and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU),
who had been leaders in achieving the right for women to vote in 1893, turned
their attention to prison reform in the late 1890s. They petitioned government
and developed plans. They also raised funds for prisoners and became official

Progress was slow and focussed mainly on men. Female prisoners continued to be thought of as unredeemable. Decision makers mainly saw no reason to change the way women were imprisoned, because nothing would help them. While male prisoners began to learn trades to prepare for an improved life upon release, women continued to mop the floors and scrub their linen.

But the WCTU pressed on with calls for reform and
particularly for a women’s-only prison. New Zealand’s first female prison opened
at Addington in April 1913. The model was borrowed from America and was to
include two separate areas – one focussed on rehabilitation for younger and
minor offenders, the other on continued punishment for the older hands. The
reality was different. All of the women were housed in a single building and
there were few attempts at education or reform.