In 2012, a volunteer named Kelsey Kauffman arrived at Indiana Women's Prison, a maximum security facility in Indianapolis, with an idea: to write the history of the prison from within its own walls.
Kauffman had spent her life working in and studying prisons. She's a tall woman, with glasses, short hair, and a certain bookishness about her, but she's always been interested, intellectually, in the question of violence — what violence is and what makes people commit it.
Kauffman spent a year after college working as a guard at a prison in Connecticut and wrote a book about prison guards. She received a doctorate in education and worked in Indiana as an independent researcher and prison reform advocate.
At roughly the time, in the early 2000s, Indiana had one of the most vibrant prison education systems in the country, paid for with Frank O'Bannon grants — the state's version of Pell grants, which give low income students money for college. Seven colleges had full time programs in Indiana prisons, including at Indiana Women's Prison, with 400 professors working with thousands of students.
But in 2011, Indiana cut O'Bannon funding to prisoners, and the college programs pulled out.
After Indiana cut funding to college prison programs, Kauffman went to IWP's superintendent and proposed a program that would be run by volunteers and cost the state nothing.
"His reaction and the reaction of the (Department of Corrections) was, we doubt you can do that, but if you can we'd welcome you with open arms," Kauffman said.
A 'happy story' takes a turn
Kauffman's idea was simple: the female inmates of IWP, many of whom had already earned bachelor's degrees from the college programs that ran classes in the prison before O'Bannon funds were cut, would spend a semester researching the history of their own prison, considered the first women's correctional facility in the United States. Kauffman drafted a team of research librarians on the outside to collect primary source materials and she would bring printouts in to the prison for the women to study. The assignment, in Kauffman's mind, was a bit of a softball. "I said we'll write a history of the prison in one semester," she said. "It will be a happy story about how two Quaker women rescued women in 1873 from the clutches of the evil men's prison and started the first women' prison, and became the model for country. "
The first problem with Kauffman's plan? None of the women at IWP was particularly interested in 19th century American history.
"Absolutely not," said Anastazia Schmid, an inmate in her 40s. "It was not my interest, not something I wanted to do."
Schmid came to IWP in 2002 and earned a bachelor's degree there. When educational programs went away, she was overwhelmed by boredom. "All of a sudden it went from packed schedule to absolutely nothing to do," she said. "It was almost maddening." So Schmid, and about twenty other IWP students signed on to Kauffman's history project.
She and other inmates agreed to talk about their work on the condition their crimes were not identified. Schmid, for example, said she wanted her work to stand on its own and not be tainted by her status as an inmate.
Until Kelsey Kauffman's class began, the history of Indiana Women's Prison was simple and uplifting. The story went like this: Two formidable Indianapolis Quakers, Sarah Smith and Rhoda Coffin, were called to moral duty when they heard female prisoners were being forced into prostitution at Indiana's co-ed prisons.
In 1873, Indiana Women's Prison opened as the first penitentiary exclusively for women, ushering in a modern era of liberal female reformatories, where women were dressed in gingham, and ate meals at tables where "linen covers are spread over clean tables, simple but attractive china makes the room attractive, and a vase of flowers is not considered too good for prison life." Criminal justice historian Nicole Hahn Rafter catalogued Indiana Women's Prison as one that "pioneered ... reformatory techniques."
This was the picture of the prison's past with which the students began their investigation. But as Kauffman's research group started digging, with limited access to reference materials and no access to the internet, they uncovered a darker side to the prison's history.
'Where are all the prostitutes?'
The question came from inmate Michelle Jones, a dreadlocked, bespectacled college grad. Jones spent months collecting intake data from photocopied nineteenth century prison records, and she noticed a significant omission: female inmates were brought in for murder, theft and assault, but not for prostitution. "I came up with all kinds of reasons to explain that: maybe it wasn't illegal, all these other things," Kelsey Kauffman said. But Jones pushed back. "You had other historians for that time saying prostitutes were everywhere, on every corner," she argued. "If they're everywhere and not in the jails and not in the prisons, where are they?"
The first clue came from a local newspaper article from 1967, unearthed with the help of an Indiana state librarian. The article includes a passing reference to a second correctional institute for women opened in Indianapolis the same year as the women's prison. The women now believe it was a second institution, called The House of Good Shepard, that housed the city's prostitutes. Jones discovered this was one of a chain of Catholic laundry houses for so called "fallen" women across the country, modeled on the Irish Magdalene Laundries, where former street prostitutes figuratively cleansed themselves of their sins by performing punishing laundry duties.
For Kauffman and her students, the fire was lit. "That set us off," Kauffman said. "We did another semester and another."
'There's more to that story'
While Michelle Jones was unearthing the missing prostitutes of Indianapolis, her fellow researcher Anastazia Schmid was stuck on something else: the prison doctor. Theophilus Parvin served as the IWP prison doctor from 1873-1883. Parvin was a doctor with a prestigious resume. A celebrated obstetrician, Dr. Parvin became president of the American Medical Association while at Indiana Women's Prison. "My reaction was. 'Isn't that great, the best doctor in the country, he vaccinated all of [the prisoners], none of them got cholera," Kauffman said.
But Schmid was immediately suspicious of Parvin. "I was like, are you kidding me?," she said. "Why would he work at a women's prison when we're lucky to get a doctor on probation to work here now? Come on, doesn't make sense. There's more to that story."
At first, a few of Dr. Parvin's more colorful passages caught Schmid's eye. His recommended treatment for a woman with excessive desire for intercourse was, for example: "We applied a muriate of cocaine to the clitoris, and I can assure you the effect was wonderful, the vagina at once behaved as well as the most virtuous vagina in the United States." And Parvin's hearty predicted future for ovariectomies was this: "This operation is becoming so extremely fashionable that I imagine that after a time but a small proportion of our women will be childbearing."
But it was a book Parvin published after leaving the prison that truly caught Schmid's attention. The 700-page illustrated manual, titled The Science and Art of Obstetrics, cited research Schmid suspects was conducted on several IWP inmates during Parvin's time at the prison.
Schmid hypothesizes that Parvin used incarcerated women as test subjects for his gynecological research, and accepted the job at IWP because it gave him something invaluable: a captive population he could study without the restraints that existed on the outside.
It has been four years since the women first gathered in a white cell block room with a simple assignment. Since then, they have presented via Skype to historical conferences around the country, and published articles on gendered violence, sexual conquest, and economic exploitation of female inmates, as well as on an 1881 state investigation in which prisoners and staff testified that IWP's founders beat their prisoners, put them in solitary confinement, pulled their hair and pounded them against walls, even waterboarded them. The students are now compiling their research into a book: a definitive history of the first 15 years of Indiana Women's Prison.