Religious Reformers and the Origins of Women’s Prisons

Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:40 PM
Crystal Ballroom B (Hilton Atlanta)
Leslie Hauk, Indiana Women's Prison
Three Quaker women, renowned philanthropists of their day, founded and led the Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP) in the late 19th century.  This paper will focus on these three remarkable women, the events leading to establishment of the prison, their actions at the prison and their legacy.

Rhoda Coffin is the most famous of the three. She, along with her husband Charles, were the leading Quakers in post bellum Indiana. Wealthy, politically powerful, and theoretically sophisticated, both Coffins promulgated their penal theories throughout the United States and Europe. They played the leading role in the founding not only of IWP but also the Indiana Boys School (a prison despite its name). Alas, it turns out that they were financing their various philanthropic projects and lavish lifestyle through a vast Ponzi scheme that cost thousands of ordinary Quakers who invested in their bank more money than all the property crimes committed by all the people who were incarcerated in Rhoda's and Charles’ prisons.

Less well known to historians are Sarah Smith and Elmina Johnson who served as the first two superintendents of IWP.  Before coming to the prison, they ran Homes for Friendless Women in Indianapolis and Richmond. We contend that Smith’s and Johnson’s roles at IWP and the harsh rules they imposed on their charges there varied little from those they had established at their Homes for Friendless Women. Smith’s and Johnson’s efforts to improve society’s outcasts in the Homes may have been rooted in goodwill and philanthropy; however, the means they used qualified them as “jailers” long before their appointment to the Women’s Prison and foreshadowed subsequent investigations by the legislature of the various forms of punishment (some might say torture) that they employed at the prison.