Did an Experimental Feminist Prison Intervention Program Rehabilitate the Women Who Carried Out Charles Manson's Murders?

A New Yorker essay by American studies professor Jeffrey Melnick is calling for the parole of the women who participated in the Charles Manson murders and explains how media stories about their "deprogramming" fail to understand how they were rehabilitated.


Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten, often referred to in sexist media reports as the "Manson girls," first began receiving assistance around 1972 while in prison from a group called the Santa Cruz Women's Prison Project.

The young women were the focus of "prurient male interest" as culture fixated on the Manson murders. But feminists from the group co-founded by University of California graduate student Karlene Faith treated them like "active subjects" who had the tools to liberate themselves from the patriarchal cult that led to their crimes.

Prison's administrators approved an experimental program which found the group providing intense visitation sessions and study programs.

As the Melnick writes:

This was not “deprogramming,” as it came to be familiarly called in the nineteen-seventies, but, rather, an acknowledgment that a holistic political, social, and cultural education was the most powerful tool to help transform Atkins, Krenwinkel, and Van Houten back into the “independent, promising young people” they had been before being turned into, as Faith put it, “obedient disciples who lost their ability to think for themselves.”

Prison warden Virginia Carlson helped by inviting “carloads of graduate student instructors, professors, law students, artists, performers and community activists from throughout the state” to teach the holistic curriculum.

The three women reportedly dedicated themselves to their studies with enthusiasm, showing visible reform as they regained their agency.

“Suddenly I found myself free," Atkins wrote of her experience following "light in the darkness" while in prison.

Atkins died in 2009. But Leslie Van Houten and Patricia Krenwinkel are still behind bars all these decades later.

Melnick believes the public should be "agitating" for the two women to be released.

"Not only have they paid their debt in time served, but, thanks to Faith, her Santa Cruz colleagues, and themselves, they were rehabilitated a long time ago," Melnick concludes.

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