Women's Prison History: The Undiscovered Country
The Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP), founded in 1873 in Indianapolis, is often described as the first separate prison for women in the United States. For the past 18 months, students in the college program at the prison have been researching and writing a book on the history of our prison’s first 15 years. Our class has been fortunate to obtain original sources for our research from the Indianapolis Public Library, the Indiana State Archives, and IWP itself, including detailed prisoner demographic data from 19th-century prison registries that we have digitized.
This project is unusually collaborative. Students are organized into groups that discuss, research, and study a particular area of the prison’s history that will be covered in the book. Our professor, Kelsey Kauffman, facilitates meta-discussions in which singular topics are interwoven, providing a cohesive look into our prison’s past.
After reading many of the historical and contemporary accounts available to us, we initially believed we were writing a feel-good story about two Quaker women banding together with other Quakers and the state to create a safe and rehabilitative environment for “fallen” women. The social and economic climate at the end of the Civil War was abysmal for women. Prostitution, theft, and fraud, the only alternatives to destitution and death for many marginalized women, often led to their incarceration. In Indiana, Rhoda Coffin and her husband, Charles, both Quakers, exposed the sexual abuse and exploitation of women held in the men’s state prison in Jeffersonville. This exposure ultimately compelled Governor Conrad Baker and the state legislature to create the Indiana Reformatory Institution for Women and Girls (now known as the Indiana Women’s Prison).
We learned that another Quaker, Sarah J. Smith, had opened a Home for the Friendless in 1865, using her own money to “develop a wonderful facility for reforming the abandoned.”1 Smith was handpicked to serve as the superintendent for the newly opened female prison on the strength of her work and dedication at the Home for the Friendless. Rhoda Coffin initially chaired the Board of Visitors at the Indiana Reformatory Institution for Women and Girls until she led a coup against the all-male Board of Managers, after which she chaired that board. Together, Coffin, Smith, and others associated with the prison extolled their great successes in the reformation of the women and girls incarcerated there. Smith said, “What, it will be asked, has been the result of all this improvement in prison life? We answer: In most cases restored womanhood, to enter again in life able to care for themselves and not a terror or an expense to society.”2 In 1878, the Board of Managers reported an 82 percent success rate for women and girls reentering society, measured by Smith’s visits and correspondence. According to the report, this social experiment in the rehabilitation of women and girls in the sole charge of women was working. The first women’s prison in the United States was saving “fallen” women.
At the time, women who were forced or consented to engage in prostitution were considered fallen and remained fallen by the standards of the day. As a journalist for The Fort Wayne News put it succinctly in 1897, “. . . in the minds of legislators and public men generally, a woman fallen is down forever. That an unfortunate or criminal woman or girl is so much worse than a criminal man or boy, that there is no hope for her reformation.”
But here is where it gets interesting. When we started to analyze crimes recorded in the prison registry for the first 15 years, we stumbled upon a glaring omission. Not one woman was incarcerated for prostitution or any sexual offense. Indeed, not until October 27, 1897—24 years after the prison’s founding—did Estella Koup arrive at the prison as the first woman sent there for prostitution. Hadn’t the prison been created for all the “fallen” women? If they weren’t at IWP, where were they?
A clue came in a 1967 article from the Terre Haute Tribune mentioning that the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had come to Indianapolis in “1873 to operate a correctional institution for women prisoners.” That was the same year that the Indiana Reformatory for Women and Girls had opened, but we knew that none of the women working there in the 19th century were nuns. Sarah Smith and Rhoda Coffin were Quakers, and as far as we can tell, all others associated with the prison were Protestants. Could there have been two prisons for women started in Indianapolis in the same year? If so, where was the other prison, and what was the relationship between the two? Could there have been an agreement between the two prisons, such as “you get the prostitutes and we get the murderers and thieves”? This hypothesis led to our discovery that the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had indeed established a House of the Good Shepherd in Indianapolis in 1873—five months before the founding of IWP—that operated much like a prison, even receiving convicted felons from county courts. Our current theory is that in the earliest years of the Indiana Women’s Prison, the most “fallen” of women—prostitutes—were not admitted there but were sentenced to the HGS instead. Moreover, we have now found 15 Catholic prisons for women in the United States that predate IWP, all modeled on the infamous Irish Magdalene laundries. Magdalene laundries led by Catholic nuns were institutions where women committed by family, priests, or courts performed arduous physical labor washing the clothing of others. The work was punitive and was figuratively and literally a means by which women could turn from their “sin” and “cleanse” themselves. Commitment to a Magdalene laundry was often indeterminate and, at least in Ireland, some women spent their lives “washing” away their sins.
As a different picture of our prison began to form, we came to understand that its self-proclaimed successes in reformation would have to be tempered against a dramatic legislative investigation in 1881 into physical abuse of inmates by Superintendent Smith and her staff at the prison. We learned of allegations of water-boarding or “dunking,” of outright physical abuse, of women stripped naked and put in solitary confinement. These acts against women in prison often were perpetrated by Sarah Smith herself. Imagine our shock. We had been completely convinced by the angelic picture of Smith and Coffin that had been painted for us via primary and secondary historical sources, only to find this.
Further, we discovered that an acclaimed doctor who cared for the women and girls at the prison from 1873 to 1883 advocated female circumcision and removal of women’s ovaries to cure nymphomania and masturbation. As revealed in the 1881 legislative investigation, Theophilus Parvin performed operations on the women for reasons not always clear to the inmates. During each of the 10 years that Parvin worked at IWP, he had nearly unfettered access to an average of 25 women and 100 girls. Only three years after leaving, he published one of the most extensively illustrated and detailed textbooks on gynecology and obstetrics of his time, which established him as an internationally recognized authority in the field of gynecology. Did he use his 10 years of employment at the women’s prison to study and experiment on the women prisoners as he cataloged female anatomy, diseases, and treatments? Thus far, we have positively identified three incarcerated women Parvin used as study subjects in one peer-reviewed article in a medical journal.
Our initial questions are leading to additional ones about the real origins of women’s prisons in the United States, about the evolving relationship between IWP and the House of the Good Shepherd, and about Smith, Coffin, and Parvin. A possible fallout from the 1881 investigation was the subsequent resignations of Coffin in 1881 and of Smith and Parvin in 1883. Mary Humphries, a white federal prisoner from Ohio, pled for another investigation into cruelty at IWP in 1887. What was happening at IWP, the bastion of reform and female management? What happens when pressure to depict ideals of perfect management, measurable reformation, and above-reproach Christian principles creates representations that come apart under the onslaught of reality? Are there correlations today in our prisons?
As new historians, we are trying to answer some really difficult questions. Others have written histories of the Indiana Women’s Prison, but except for passing reference to the 1881 investigation, none have uncovered this material or put it together to develop a full history. We are committed to gaining a true contextual insight into our primary sources, while using our secondary sources to form strong compelling arguments. Having incarcerated women write the history of their own prisons is significant because we know the right questions to ask. As we proceed with our joint venture, we feel more and more like great explorers in undiscovered country.
Michelle Jones is a graduate of Ball State University and a teaching assistant in the Martin College program at the Indiana Women’s Prison. She has been incarcerated since 1997.
1. “A Model Female Prison,” Greencastle Press, December 22, 1875.
2. Superintendant’s Report, Fourth Report of the Indiana Reformatory Institution for Women and Girls, Year Ending December 31, 1875, 11.
Doing Historical Research in Prison
Incarcerated historians don’t have access to the Internet; our library is minuscule and primarily stocked with romance novels; interlibrary loan takes months if it works at all; and, of course, we can’t search archives or other repositories ourselves. We faced extreme challenges in researching our book on the first separate prison for women.
Our professor and others invested countless hours at the Indiana State Library and the Indiana State Archives and on the Internet gathering materials for us and spent hundreds of dollars photocopying them. Because we couldn’t directly sift through available materials, our research requests were filtered through another person’s judgment of what would be valuable to us. As our topic developed, following up on leads took weeks and sometimes months; some students received more information than others; and sometimes the research provided wasn’t particularly useful.
Expediting our research meant asking pointed questions. For example, after we digitized and analyzed the prison registries and studied Indiana history, we realized that women convicted of crimes of a sexual nature like prostitution weren’t at the prison. Yet our reading of contemporary accounts of postbellum Indianapolis convinced us that they should have been. We asked our professor and state librarians to search county jail records for prostitutes; when that failed to yield results, we pressed them to keep searching. It was only then that a state librarian found a critical article stating that the Sisters of the Good Shepherd had opened a facility for women prisoners in 1873, the same year our facility had opened. This discovery sparked a new field of inquiry for us that led to the heretofore-unknown role of a Magdalene laundry in Indianapolis as a prison.
As incarcerated students we are often frustrated by the unusual methods we are compelled to adopt, but we have come to weigh such difficulties against the riches of discovery, the expansion of our ideas and viewpoints, and the development of a clearer view of history.
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