This essay examines the roots and legacy of violence against women in prison at the hands of guards and matrons during the first fifty years of the penitentiary in New York State. While immigrant and black women were disproportionately victims of institutional violence, US-born white men and women dominated the staff. News of violent encounters involving women generated sensational headlines that outpaced coverage of the more pervasive violence against men. Two major incidents—one in 1826 and one in 1839—threatened to bring the system to its knees but instead had the reverse effect. Investigators privileged guard discretion over policy and authorized the expansion of the system. The public debates over these scandals helped establish broad support for state-sanctioned violence against prisoners.

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