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Minnesota State Reformatory for Women, Shakopee

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Minnesota Correctional Institution for Women, Shakopee

Minnesota Correctional Institution for Women, Shakopee, 1978. Photo by Stormi Greener for the Minneapolis Star Tribune; used with the permission of the Star Tribune.

Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee (MCF-Shakopee) is Minnesota’s only state women’s prison. Women reformers pushed for its existence in the 1910s, arguing that women needed a place away from men where they could receive training instead of punishment. It opened in 1920 as the State Reformatory for Women. Over the next hundred years, it became increasingly crowded, and its focus shifted from “retraining” its prisoners to confining them.

In the winter of 1915, prominent social worker Isabel Davis Higbee stood and spoke in front of the Minnesota House of Representatives' prison committee. It was not her first time at the Capitol. She was asking the legislature to open a reformatory just for women, something she and others had been pushing for more than two decades. At the time, women in Minnesota were typically incarcerated either with men or with girls. Higbee pleaded for a place where women could receive training instead of punishment; at the end of her speech, she collapsed and died on the legislative floor. That year, the legislature voted to build a State Reformatory for Women.

The institution approved by the legislature was built in Shakopee. It was made up of cottages and had no fence. It opened in 1920, receiving its first fifteen prisoners from the State Prison at Stillwater. According to the first warden, the first seventy-eight prisoners were convicted of stealing (forty-seven); miscellaneous, including sex delinquency (eighteen); taking life (seven); and marrying someone while already married (six).

Nationwide, the reformatory movement was primarily led by upper-class white women. It was focused on “reforming” mostly white sex workers and other low-income women. In line with this thinking, state reformatories for women called their staff “house parents.” Minnesota’s was considered among the best reformatories in its early years, and visitors came from around the world to see its design and programs.

By 1970, the State Reformatory had been renamed the Minnesota Correctional Institution for Women, but prisoners were still required to wear dresses to dinner. Critics said staff often treated prisoners as “retarded children rather than as mature women.” In the mid-1970s, the prison’s warden let children stay overnight with their mothers. The average number of women incarcerated at the prison hovered around forty-eight. That would soon change.

In 1978, after a series of high-profile crimes committed by Minnesota women, the Shakopee City Council passed a resolution asking the Department of Corrections to put a barbed wire fence around the prison. As US politicians pushed being “tough on crime” and waging a “war on drugs,” Minnesota’s prison population began to rise. “The era of reform has come and gone,” the Minneapolis Star announced in a 1978 story about the Shakopee prison.

By 1986, the population was up to eighty-five women. The state moved the prison across the street to a new, larger facility, Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee. By 1994, the prison population had more than doubled to 194 and the state expanded the prison facility. A 1997 Department of Corrections report said Minnesota’s prison sentences were some of the toughest in the US, contributing to the growth.

In 2014, the Minnesota legislature allocated money for a fence around Shakopee, pointing to eight escapes in twenty years, including one in 2013. By 2020, “house parents” were called “correctional officers.” MCF-Shakopee allowed incarcerated women to have a birth coach with them while in labor, made possible through the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, but their newborns were taken away soon after delivery. 620 women were incarcerated at the prison in that year.

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Associated Press. “Minnesota Women’s Prison to Drop ‘No-touch’ Policy.” July 1, 2019. https://apnews.com/674e928b2bd94052b8fe5df1b460a088

Beck, Allen J., Marcus Berzovsky, Rachel Caspar, and Christopher Krebs. Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice. “Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011–12,” May 2013.
https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/svpjri1112.pdf

Boarini, Cristeta, and Pat Minelli. “Fence Rises at Shakopee Prison.” Southwest News Media, September 25, 2015.

“Correcting Women’s Prisons.” Minneapolis Tribune, January 3, 1972.

Daly, Thomas. For the Good of the Women: A Short History of the Minnesota Correctional Facility Shakopee. Bloomington, MN: Daly Publishing, 2004.

Foster, Mary Dillon, comp. Who's Who Among Minnesota Women: A History of Woman's Work in Minnesota from Pioneer Days to Date. St. Paul: n.p., 1924.

Gilbert, Curtis. “Shakopee Women's Prison to Finally Get a Fence.” Minnesota Public Radio, May 20, 2014.

Minnesota Department of Corrections. “Adult Prison Population Summary,” January 1, 2020. https://mn.gov/doc/assets/Adult%20Prison%20Population%20Summary%201-1-2020_tcm1089-418232.pdf

——— . “Corrections Retrospective 1959–1999.”
https://mn.gov/doc/assets/docretro_tcm1089-271689.pdf

——— . “Minnesota Correctional Facilities Adult Inmate Profile,” January 1, 1986. Personal collection of the author.

——— . “Minnesota Department of Corrections 1971–1973 Biennial Report,” 1973. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as HV7273 .A29 1965/66–1971/73.

——— . “Minnesota Department of Corrections 1996–1997 Biennial Report,” 1997. Available at the Minnesota Historical Society library as HV7273 .A29 1979/80–.

"Minnesota Historical Society Notes." Minnesota History Bulletin 1, no. 2 (1915): 63–68.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/1/v01i02p054-080.pdf

"Minnesota Historical Society Notes." Minnesota History 11, no. 1 (March 1930): 91–98.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/11/v11i01p077-120.pdf

Newlund, Sam. “New Prison Trappings Like a Club, Some Say.” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, August 10, 1986.

Rafter, Nicole Hahn. "Prisons for Women, 1790-1980." Crime and Justice 5 (1983): 129–81.
www.jstor.org/stable/1147471

Sawyer, Liz. “Shakopee Women's Prison to Discontinue 'No-touch' Policy.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 29, 2019.

——— . “Minnesota Lawmakers Urge Changes for Moms Behind Bars.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, October 29, 2019.

Shlafer, Rebecca, Erica Gerrity, and Grant Duwe. "Pregnancy and Parenting Support for Incarcerated Women: Lessons Learned." Progress in Community Health Partnerships: Research, Education, and Action 9, no. 3 (2015): 371–378.

Stone, Debra. “Shakopee for Women/A Prison of the Mind.” Minneapolis Star, December 16, 1978.

Related Images

Minnesota Correctional Institution for Women, Shakopee
Minnesota Correctional Institution for Women, Shakopee
Incarcerated women posing by a cornfield
Incarcerated women posing by a cornfield
Incarcerated women cultivating a field
Incarcerated women cultivating a field
Incarcerated woman feeding pigs
Incarcerated woman feeding pigs
Higbee Hall
Higbee Hall
State Reformatory for Women, Shakopee
State Reformatory for Women, Shakopee
Incarcerated women sewing
Incarcerated women sewing
Incarcerated women working in laundry room
Incarcerated women working in laundry room
Parlor of the Women's State Reformatory, Shakopee
Parlor of the Women's State Reformatory, Shakopee
Dining room of the Women's State Reformatory, Shakopee
Dining room of the Women's State Reformatory, Shakopee
State Reformatory for Women, Shakopee
State Reformatory for Women, Shakopee
Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee
Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee

Turning Point

The State Reformatory for Women opens at Shakopee in 1920. It receives its first fifteen prisoners from the State Prison at Stillwater, where women and men had both been held since 1854.

Chronology

1915

The Minnesota legislature votes to build a state prison for women in Shakopee.

1920

The State Reformatory for Women opens alongside reformatories for women in Pennsylvania, Nebraska, and Arkansas, joining eleven already operating across the East Coast and Midwest.

1964

After a woman escapes from the prison and threatens two children with a knife, the Shakopee City Council asks the Department of Corrections to build a fence around the complex.

1978

After a series of high-profile crimes committed by women, the Shakopee City Council again asks the Department of Corrections to build a fence.

1986

The prison moves across the street to a new, larger facility, Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee.

1994

MCF-Shakopee is expanded to address a rising population.

2010

The Minnesota Prison Doula Project starts offering birth coaches to women set to deliver their babies while incarcerated at MCF-Shakopee.

2011

The US Department of Justice finds that sexual misconduct at MCF-Shakopee is among the highest in the US; soon after, the warden bans prisoners from touching each other.

2014

The Minnesota legislature passes funding for a fence around MCF-Shakopee; to protect nearby property values, the fence is designed with an internal security system instead of barbed wire.

2016

The fence around MCF-Shakopee is completed.

2019

The American Civil Liberties Union investigates MCF-Shakopee’s ban on touch after prisoners say the policy is cruel; the Department of Corrections modifies the policy to allow high-fives but not hugs.

2020

620 women are incarcerated at the prison; roughly 20 percent are Native American, even though Native Americans make up just over 1 percent of Minnesota’s population total.