Indiana inmates deliver unique research on history of incarcerated women

By Christopher Zoukis

Indiana Women’s Reformatory as seen in 1873. Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Library.

Indiana Women’s Reformatory as seen in 1873. Photo courtesy of the Indiana State Library.

Prisoners at the maximum-security Indiana Women’s Prison have undertaken a remarkable feat conducting and presenting their own original research on the history of the 143-year-old prison.

While funding was cut for non-vocational education programs in Indiana in 2011, volunteer instructors have still been teaching as part of the Higher Education Program, co-ordinated by Kelsey Kauffman since 2012. While the prisoners do not earn any type of formal credits and cannot earn a degree as they previously could, there are still many participants in the program, and they have been contributing greatly to historical scholarship in Indiana, including on the history of the prison which is 143 years old – as well about women and related issues.

Conducting their own research has presented many benefits, including developing skills such as inquiry, collaboration, research, critical thinking, synthesis, writing, presentation, and publishing, say the organizers. But it also comes with its unique set of challenges, since in many cases the prisoners cannot access the sources themselves. Participants do not have direct access to literature, interlibrary loan requests can take months, Internet access is largely unavailable, and they must often rely on volunteers to provide or send in source materials, which may not be exactly what they were looking for. The process is arduous at best. 

Despite these challenges, the women have made a number of important discoveries. Under Kauffman, the students set out to write a history of the prison’s founding decade and through this, discovered that many long-held beliefs about this early period may be incorrect, at least in part.

Their research also helped dispel an inaccurate but long-held belief that Indiana Women’s Prison was founded through a benevolent campaign by Quaker reformers to rescue women from the darker, more sinister men’s prisons.

The students also researched the founders of the institution, as well as one of the early doctors, Theophilus Parvin, who was the physician from 1873-1883. Parvin was an advocate for female circumcision and hysterectomies for women considered too sexually active or diagnosed with hysteria, and after research the student were able to connect some of his experiments with women in the prison, who had allegedly not given their consent for research, experimentation or surgeries.

Despite the difficulties, lack of resources, and reliance on the invaluable work of volunteers, some of the students have been allowed to present their research at conferences via video-link, including to a conference on women’s history in Indiana, and to the Indiana Association of Historians. Some of the prisoners are now working on a play about the early history of the prison, which they hope to complete for Indiana’s bicentennial this year as a public history project, and several papers have been published by the researchers. The students are also already thinking about future research topics, including the relationship between present-day abuses of prisoners and the links to the early history of the Indiana Women’s Prison.

If this is what can be accomplished without any funding or direct access to resources, what could these – and other – inmates accomplish with proper access to education?

Until more resources become available, members of the public can help volunteer as researchers

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.comPrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com