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A History of Incarceration by Women Who Have Lived Through It

The members of the Indiana Women’s Prison History Project scrutinize official records not only for what they reveal, but also for what they omit.

The oldest women-only, state-run prison in the U.S., the Indiana Reformatory Institute for Women and Girls, opened in 1873. Its primary founders, Sarah Smith and Rhoda Coffin, were both Quakers who became nationally recognized prison reformers and women’s-rights advocates. Until Smith and Coffin’s campaign, state prisons had been managed and overseen almost exclusively by men; the reformers argued that an all-female facility should be run by women, who would be uniquely suited to meet the needs of incarcerated women. Smith became the reformatory’s first superintendent, or warden, and was lauded for her progressive, humane institutional leadership during her tenure. Her portrait still hangs in the hall of the reformatory’s current incarnation, the Indiana Women’s Prison (I.W.P.).

In 2013, a group of incarcerated women at I.W.P. met with Kelsey Kauffman, a local academic. The prison had previously offered a comprehensive college program in the nineteen-nineties and two-thousands, but the Indiana state legislature had cut off the program’s funding in 2011. At the time of the 2013 meeting, Kauffman was running ad-hoc college courses at the prison, relying on only volunteers and donations. She had struggled to find materials with which her students could be trained to learn research methods; they did not have direct access to the Internet or to a public library, and interlibrary loans to the prison were slow and cumbersome. Kauffman did have, however, an archive of documents pertaining to the prison’s founding and history, and her idea was to use these primary sources as grist for the research mill. She proposed to her students that they spend a few months conducting a historical investigation of the institution that confined them, and that, at the end of the course, they produce a pamphlet about the prison that could be shared with visitors interested in its origins.

That group became the foundation of the Indiana Women’s Prison History Project, a collective of incarcerated and now formerly incarcerated women who have, over the past decade, produced an astonishing body of investigations into the early history of Indiana’s correctional system. This year, the New Press published an anthology titled “Who Would Believe a Prisoner?: Indiana Women’s Carceral Institutions, 1848-1920,” with contributions by twenty-nine members of the collective.

The book is a collection of essays, academic chapters, and one original play that reflect not only the authors’ extraordinary feat of having produced original scholarship while incarcerated but also what Kauffman calls the authors’ “epistemic privilege”—the particular benefit of lived experience which positions them in conversation and continuity with the subject of their inquiry. “We offer a new terminology: the embodied observer, one who views the archive from the position of the captive, from the inside of their experience,” writes Michelle Daniel Jones, in her introductory chapter to the book. The embodied observer, in this case, is predisposed to believe the accounts of incarcerated women over the accounts of her jailers when those narratives are in conflict. The observer is also alert to what unflattering or incriminating stories may be absent from the archives.