With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

What happens when inmates write a history of their own prison?

In 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.

Kelsey Kauffman, who spearheaded the project, holds an Ed.D. in human development, worked as a correctional officer, wrote a book about correctional officers, and taught college classes in writing at two men’s prisons.* Kauffman was dismayed when the Indiana state legislature canceled funding for nonvocational college programs in prisons in 2012. At the suggestion of the Indiana Women’s Prison’s superintendent, and working with two other educators, she started a new, grassroots program of college courses at IWP.

Kauffman’s book contained a chapter on prison history in Massachusetts, and she had long been interested in the idea of leading a class in writing a history of the IWP. She told me that she tried the project with her college students at DePauw University, to no avail. “They never asked an interesting question,” she told me. “To some extent, you can’t blame them for that, because they know nothing about prisons. It doesn’t relate to their lives.” Kauffman resolved to try the subject out on students who knew the subject firsthand. ...

Read entire article at Slate