The Origins of Women’s Prisons in the United States
The Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP), where we are incarcerated, is often described as the first separate prison for women in the United States. It was founded in 1873 in Indianapolis by two Quaker women, lauded then and now as leading philanthropists of their day whose foresight and perseverance led to the development of prisons that were far more humane and suited to their sex than anything previously envisioned.
For the past two years, we and other students at IWP have been studying the earliest years of our prison. Although it was not our intent or expectation, we have come to challenge nearly every aspect of the prison’s mythology. For example, we have discovered that:
- IWP was not the first women’s prison in the US. It was preceded by at least 30 years by the first of what became a vast network of Catholic prisons known as Magdalene Laundries to which women were duly sentenced by state courts for a variety of sexual transgressions. These institutions—numbering at least 39 by 1900—were far more numerous and widespread in the 19th century than state prisons for women and, we argue, had a profound effect on women and sexuality in the 19th century, especially among the lower classes.
- Theophilus Parvin, the prison's doctor for the first 10 years and one of the nation's leading gynecologists, was apparently using the women at the prison as his unwilling experimental subjects. Though now mostly forgotten, Parvin was the nation's leading expert in the late 19th century on nymphomania and masturbation, an advocate of female circumcision and well-connected to the eugenics movement. As such, he was the true successor to the founder of gynecology in the US, Dr. Marion Sims, Parvin’s friend, colleague and predecessor as president of the AMA, who developed his expertise by experimenting on unanaesthetized slave women.
- The Quaker women who founded the Indiana Women's Prison and claimed to be ruling the prison through love were in fact ruling it through harsh punishments (including waterboarding) and, in the case of one of them and her husband, embezzling more money than all the property crimes of the women held in their prison combined.
- Historians have long neglected our predecessors at IWP—the women who, like us, actually inhabited the prison. We have digitized and analyzed all the original registries and every other record we could find to create human images, individually and collectively, of these captive women and girls.
- Finally, we have begun to analyze the role that race played in 19th century women’s and men’s prisons in the North, a topic that we expect to have ready for presentation by January 2016.
Our intended audience is anyone interested in women in the US in the 19th century, as well as those concerned about mass incarceration in the 21st century. The experiences of our 19th century predecessors have turned out to hold surprisingly important and relevant lessons for today.