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The Women's Prison Association (WPA), founded 1845,[1] is the oldest advocacy group for women in the United States.[2] The organization has historically focused on New York City and New York State issues, but since 2004 it has also umbrella'd the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice, focusing on women and criminal justice on a national level.[1]

Most of WPA's clients in its early years were poor Irish immigrants with alcohol dependency. While the ethnicity of their clients have shifted over time, they organization has had to engage throughout its history with the effects of poverty and substance abuse.[1]



The WPA has its origins in the Prison Association of New York (now the Correctional Association), founded by abolitionist Quaker Isaac T. Hopper. What began as a task force to investigate the conditions facing incarcerated women New York became, in January 1845, the Female Department of the Prison Association. Prominent members included Hopper's daughter Abigail Gibbons and novelist Catherine Sedgwick.[1]

From the outset, the Female Department criticized New York City-area prisons as inadequate, urging that "a home needs to be provided for the homeless; other doors need to be open to them than those that lead to deeper infamy." By the summer of 1845, the Female Department founded Hopper Home, what would today be called a halfway house focused on training and rehabilitation. The Home was originally on Fourth Street near Eighth Avenue in Manhattan; it later moved to 191 Tenth Avenue; in 1874, it moved to its present location at 110 Second Avenue.[1]

In 1853, the Female Department separated from the Prison Association and was chartered by New York State as the Women's Prison Association, with Abigail Gibbons as its leader. The association gained influence. Some of their battles—such as against overcrowded jails— were perpetual, but WPA lobbying led to female matrons in all state penal facilities holding women prisoners, a separate reformatory for women and girls in Bedford, New York, and the adoption of a policy under which women prisoners would be searched only by female matrons.[1]

In the 1930s, in the face of the economic exigencies of the Great Depression, it became the first women's group to call for the decriminalization of prostitution.[2]

After over a century of existence, WPA received its first governmental funding in the 1960s; the funding came from the federal government. In the 1980s, Hopper Home became a federal work release facility, but that contract ended in 1990.[1]

Current services

In the face of the rapid increase in incarceration of women in the early 1990s, WPA began to evolve itself into a larger-scale provider of more diverse services. Hopper Home was renovated in 1992 as a residential alternative to incarceration (ATI) program, mainly for women with drug charges. In 1993, the WPA opened the Sarah Powell Huntington House (SPHH), a transitional residence that allows homeless women who have become involved with the criminal justice system to reunite with their children.[1]

In this same period, WPA established a variety of programs for HIV-positive women involved in the New York criminal justice system. 25% of criminal justice-involved women in New York are HIV-positive. WPA programs include education and discharge planning in the city jail and state prisons, as well as case management services that can providing continuity after release. WPA coordinates inmate peer HIV/AIDS education and support programs at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women and Taconic Correctional Facility.[1]

Based on its successes in this area, WPA began to extend discharge planning and transitional services to women who are not HIV-positive. Their first such program was established at Rikers Island in 2000. From 2001, WPA operates WomenCare, a program providing mentoring services to women leaving New York jail and prison systems.[1]

Other projects

Other current WPA projects include the Incarcerated Mother's Law Project (IMLP), founded in 1994 and co-sponsored with the Volunteers of Legal Services (VOLS), with later participation by South Brooklyn Legal Services and the Center for Family Representation. The program provides workshops for incarcerated mothers to aid them in dealing with visitation and family court issues. IMLP began at New York state prisons, but has expanded to New York City jail and to women in WPA's community-based services.[1]

Given the small number of New York City neighborhoods contributing a large percentage of New York's prison population, since the late 1990s, WPA chose to give special focus to one of these neighborhoods, the East New York area of Brooklyn. WPA established its Brooklyn Community Office (BCO) in 1999, to address the web of poverty, poor housing, health problems, and child abuse and neglect. The hope is that intensive case management cab break the cycle of substance abuse and child abuse and/or neglect, and keep families intact. The program, which partners with several other organizations, expanded in 2005 to work also in the adjacent neighborhoods of Bushwick and Brownsville.[1]

In addition to its locally-focused work, in 2004 WPA founded the Institute on Women & Criminal Justice "to create a national conversation on women and criminal justice in relation to families and communities."[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m WPA - History, Women's Prison Association. Accessed 2009-05-11.
  2. ^ a b Lawney Reyes, B Street: The Notorious Playground of Coulee Dam, University of Washington Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-295-98853-5.

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