The State of Kansas imprisoned over 5,000 women for having STDs

The State of Kansas imprisoned over 5,000 women for having STDs

For most people, the thought of seeing a doctor for a quick checkup after having unprotected sex isn’t anything to be too scared of. Sure, it’s a little uncomfortable, but nothing too bad is going to happen and it's better to get treated. After all, it’s not like they’re going to send you to prison if you have chlamydia, is it? 

But, for thousands of women living in Kansas, this was exactly the case. In fact, the state imprisoned thousands of women at the Kansas Women's Industrial Farm, a detention camp in Lansing, purely based on the fact that they either had, or were suspected to have, venereal diseases. But while the Sunflower State was far from the only state to enact such quarantine programme in an effort to “to prevent the spread and dissemination of disease dangerous to the public health” during the First World War, theirs was unusual in another way. You see, most states disbanded their programmes after the end of WW1. In Kansas, however, it continued right through until 1942 - affecting over 5,000 women.

The incarceration scheme came about in 1917 as authorities strived to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, primarily syphilis and gonorrhoea. With the First World War in full flow, those in charge had a nasty shock to discover quite how many of their men were suffering from the ill-effects of love-making, and considered it a threat to both public health and national security. A law known as Chapter 205 was their response, allowing authorities including public health officials and police to designate “suspects”, order tests, hold individuals while these tests occurred, and then detain them at the "farm". 

The funny thing was, it was almost exclusively women that were imprisoned, despite the fact that it takes two to tango. Many of the women landed up at the facility after altercations with their husbands which saw them arrested by police, who would routinely screen women for such diseases. Nicole Perry, a researcher at the University of Kansas, studied the records of those admitted and saw a familiar pattern: "Quite a few of the women reported, 'I got a disease from my husband. We got into an argument, and he turned me into the police. He got off scot-free.'" In the same time, not one man was admitted to an equivalent institution for the same "offence". 

But that wasn't the only route into the Women's Industrial Farm, and most of those held under Chapter 205 were perfectly normal women that found themselves held alongside prisoners charged with murder and other serious offences. In some records, women were shown to have been arrested under Chapter 205 simply for attending dances or social events and found themselves charged with “lascivious conduct” when police raided the gatherings.  Some were reported out of revenge by ex-partners, others turned in by their own parents as punishment their unruliness. A number of women were even quarantined after disclosing a rape, only to be treated like some kind of “immoral” woman.

Unfortunately for many of the women arrested, the tests weren’t accurate and simply being sexually active could be enough to declare a woman to have an STD, whether they were married or not. Detainees would also be questioned about other aspects of their lifestyle, including drinking, smoking and their family background; even if the physical test came back negative, unsavoury answers to these questions could be enough to condemn them. “Chapter 205 is a clear example of the social control of sexuality," says Perry.

However, gender wasn’t the only factor influencing who ended up behind bars and who was free to continue with their daily lives. Class also played a major role, with a surprising number poorer women committing themselves to be jailed simply to access treatment: "If you were well-off, you could afford to get discreet care from a private doctor. If you were poor, you had to commit yourself to a prison in order to access care" explained Perry. In an age before antibiotics or any form of Medicaid, the loss of liberty was sometimes a necessary evil in order to stay healthy. As as a result of misinformation about drugs, the treatment was more often than not unsuccessful and even poisonous. 

Day-to-day life at the farm was different to a normal prison. Sentences were ostensibly designed to “rehabilitate” the women and they did not wear chains, but worked on the farm, while receiving "moral" education for their "sins" and treatment for their illnesses. Generally, the women spent an average of four months in detention, before being released. It's hard to ascertain for certain what life would have been like in the aftermath of such sentences as fewer records were kept, but Perry believes that it would have been no walk in the park, especially if they "lived in small towns where people knew they were sent to the farm for having this disease, which would have carried a stigma."

Perhaps the worst part of this is that no matter how shocking this may have been to read, we really haven't moved on as much as you would like to think. Around the world, women are routinely locked up for "moral crimes" such as running away from home or having lost their virginity. Even in America, the stigmatisation of sex before marriage and STDs is still commonplace, and vulnerable to become even more so as the education system moved towards an abstinence-based approach. Lack of access to affordable healthcare is still putting poorer sexually active women's lives at risk every day. And all of these things are just as avoidable and arbitrary as the detention of these 5000 women was.