A Look at the History of the Oldest Women's Prison in U.S. by the Women Who Now Reside There
Date:  03-28-2016

When the women researched the prison's history they uncovered a much darker version than the accepted white-washed account
As Women’s History month winds down, the staff of Reentry Central were looking for a bit of history concerning the incarceration of women. We found this intriguing article tucked away in a file and although it was published almost exactly a year ago we think it is as pertinent today as it was then. The Slate article tells the story of the first women’s prison in the U.S. and how 143 years later women occupying the same place sought to uncover the history of the prison and learn more about the lives of the women who preceded them.

Unfortunately, since 1873 women’s prisons and jails have expanded exponentially, but we are offered a rare look at the very first among them.

The Pen

Inmates at America’s oldest women’s prison are writing a history of it—and exploding the myth of its benevolent founders.

By Rebecca Onion

1873, two Quaker reformers living in Indiana, shocked by allegations of sexual abuse of female prisoners at the state’s unisex institution, pushed the state to fund the Indiana Reformatory Institute for Women and Girls: the first totally separate women’s prison established in the United States. For years, Rhoda Coffin, who lobbied for the prison and then joined its first board of visitors, and Sarah Smith, the founding superintendent, enjoyed a historical reputation of benevolence. Coffin and Smith, the story went, started an institution that prioritized reform of inmates over punishment. If their approach was invasive and personally constrictive—the institution focused on reintegrating prisoners into Victorian gender roles, training them (as the prison’s 1876 annual report put it) to “occupy the position assigned to them by God, viz., wives, mothers, and educators of children”—at least this new kind of prison provided safe surroundings and was bent on giving troubled inmates a second chance at life.

Recently, a group of women currently incarcerated at the 142-year-old institution (now called the Indiana Women’s Prison) began to pore over documents from the prison’s first 10 years. They had set out on an ambitious project: to write a history of the institution’s founding decade, one that tells quite a different story from the official narrative. What happens when inmates write a history of their own prison? In this case, the perspective that the group brought to the project took what inmate Michelle Jones, writing in the American Historical Association’s magazine Perspectives on History, calls “a feel-good story” about Quaker reformers rescuing women from abuse in men’s prisons and turned it into a darker, more complicated tale.

The researchers focused their attention on allegations of wrongdoing at the prison, looking at previously discredited testimonies of prisoners who claimed to have been physically abused and at the activities of a prison doctor who had some very Victorian ideas about women and sex. They began to unravel a long-standing mystery: Why didn’t the prison incarcerate any prostitutes in its early years? They presented their findings at academic conferences and published papers in journals. And they did all of it without access to the Internet. Read more