Some 150 years ago, a group of Quaker women reformers in Indiana founded the country’s first women’s prison—a solution, they claimed, to protect women prisoners from rape in co-ed prisons. Their stated goals were to “save” those who entered their charge and prepare them to be “useful” members of society, either as housewives or domestic workers. A women’s prison, they said, would serve as a utopia for reform and meaningfully change incarcerated women’s lives.
It’s a narrative that’s transcended that particular era, as women’s prisons are regarded by some as the standard for feminist criminal justice reform. Last summer, Gloria Steinem joined a growing list of activists and politicians who’ve gone so far as to call for the construction of an ostensibly feminist prison—what they defined as a “gender-responsive healing center that is separate from men”—in New York City.
In the last 40 years, women’s state prison populations have grown at twice the rate of men’s. There are currently 29 federal women’s prisons, and about 10% of all incarcerated people are women. The Indiana Women’s Prison stands to this day, a maximum-security facility that boasts of its capacity to imprison over 700 women, as well as “the distinction” of being the first women’s prison. In December, a glowing article described how it provides nurseries and bonding time to incarcerated mothers with newborns—even as they remain confined.
The neat, feel-good fantasy of a women’s prison as a haven for down-on-their-luck women is now being challenged by landmark research conducted by incarcerated women currently or formerly held at the Indiana Women’s Prison, in their new book Who Would Believe a Prisoner?. The book is the product of a nearly 10-year project that began in 2012, when a team within the prison started working on a brochure about its history. Ultimately, they excavated long-buried aspects of the facility’s early days, including rampant sexual violence and medical experimentation that laid the groundwork for modern gynecology.
“The through-line is the use of different kinds of captive bodies to produce new forms of medical knowledge,” co-editor Elizabeth Nelson, who helped launch the college course at the Indiana Women’s Prison that began working on the brochure, told Jezebel. “Our book is a history of the ways the medical establishment has worked with and inside these institutions of confinement.”
For Who Would Believe a Prisoner?, the scholars pored through the disturbing research notes of Dr. Theophilus Parvin, regarded by many as a founding father of the field of gynecology and obstetrics, who they found frequently used incarcerated women at the prison in the 1870s as test subjects, and leveraged his power to subject many to medical rape, studying their genitals and internal organs without their consent. Parvin, along with the prison’s women leaders, singled out and punished prisoners for masturbation and even the ability to feel sexual pleasure, which they regarded as a disease. Anastazia Schmid, a formerly incarcerated scholar who contributed to the book, wrote, “Parvin raped his female patients by digitally ‘examining’ them. When he induced orgasm, he then declared their bodily response was ‘proof’ of a woman’s sexual deviance and disease.” Under Parvin and the Quaker reformers’ care, women and girls who were perceived as sexual deviants were stripped naked, taken from their rooms, held underwater in bathtubs, and hosed down as punishment for their “disease.” Schmid found that an incarcerated Black woman with uterine cancer was subjected to Parvin’s experimentation, though it wasn’t clear what he subjected her to; the prison “treated” her by forcing her to continue performing hard labor, ultimately working her to her death.
Parvin’s research notes also included detailed, dehumanizing instructions of how to perform abortions and end miscarriages, and Schmid suggests he gained this knowledge by experimenting on incarcerated women, noting testimony from one woman who headed the prison that Parvin once “delivered” a stillborn fetus.
Michelle Daniel Jones, Nelson’s co-editor who was incarcerated during the start of the project and is currently a doctoral student at New York University with a concentration in critical prison studies, said it’s telling that it took incarcerated women to question the ethics of past medical practices at the prison. “Our work is a study of the medicalization of abuse at these facilities that really worked hand-in-hand with the health system—and showed how different the story is when it’s written by the victims and not the dominant group,” Jones told Jezebel. “We can’t talk about the medical field today as purely altruistic, without talking about the ways it was complicit in dehumanizing captive women, who are still being mistreated today.”
The medical abuse of the women held at the Indiana Women’s Prison was part-and-parcel with sexual violence they routinely faced from prison staff, per testimony that Schmid and other incarcerated scholars uncovered through archival research. One woman, Eva, was infected with syphilis after repeatedly being raped by a steward at the prison; she sued the prison but was dismissed because of her status as an incarcerated woman. The book is titled after her experience: “You can’t believe that woman. I’ve caught her in a thousand lies,” the warden, who represented the steward in court, said of her. This appraisal was accepted, and the steward faced no consequences. The quote, Jones said, encapsulates the conditions uncovered in Who Would Believe a Prisoner?. Incarcerated women were treated not just as uncredible and subhuman; their consent was irrelevant, whether for sexual encounters or medical experimentation, and their protests were shrugged off by their status.
Today, pregnant people are routinely policed for the outcomes of their pregnancies, including miscarriage of self-managed abortion, and sometimes face sentences in prisons where pregnancy-related care remains a tool of oppression. In several states, it is legal to shackle pregnant incarcerated people. Earlier this year, reporting showed an Arizona prison had a pattern of inducing labor in pregnant incarcerated people without their consent. And within prisons, even before Roe v. Wade fell, abortion has been wildly inaccessible.
Jones said that with Who Would Believe a Prisoner?, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated scholars like herself “were trying to provide an origin story that you can read right along with our current condition” within the prison and health systems. Our modern medical system continues to disregard the pain and discomfort of women and pregnant people of color, feeding alarmingly high maternal mortality rates—pregnant people in prisons are regarded as a high-risk maternal health group, Jones notes. Abusive medical practices and total policing of incarcerated women’s sexual and reproductive lives have persisted: Between 2006 and 2010, doctors reportedly performed nonconsensual sterilizations on 148 incarcerated women at a California prison. In 2017, a judge in Tennessee offered to reduce jail time for incarcerated people who agreed to be sterilized. Given the demographics of prisons, populated disproportionately by Black women, women of color, and poor women, Jones understands this targeted practice as eugenics.
Nelson points to the revelation from a whistleblower at an ICE facility in 2020 that doctors allegedly performed forced sterilizations on detained migrant women. “Our book offers a context of the continued exercise, today, of this kind of reproductive control over incarcerated and detained groups, these ongoing histories, and how it’s not all just in the past,” Jones said. It’s telling, she said, that even before the existence of women’s prisons, the historical development of gynecology relied on medical racism and captivity. Parvin’s predecessor in the field was a man named Dr. J. Marion Sims, who used enslaved women’s bodies for experimentation and exploration of the vagina, nearly killing several women according to his own notes, cited in Who Would Believe a Prisoner?. Sims and Parvin were both highly respected in their lifetimes, with Parvin serving as president of the American Medical Association and the Indiana State Medical Society. But the scholars at Indiana Women’s Prison continued to dig, because their own experiences made them skeptical of his reputation as a benefactor.
The Indiana Women’s Prison remains widely understood as a progressive and historic endeavor to protect incarcerated women from rape. Instead, it preyed on their vulnerability. Deceitful narratives about prisons, the carceral system, and sexual violence are as salient today as they were then, Jones says. Today, prisons and policing are justified as a means to lock up rapists and supposedly protect victims and prospective victims—even as police officers perpetrate domestic and sexual abuse at staggering rates, as do prison staff. Last summer, 28 women filed a lawsuit against a different Indiana jail, alleging they’d been raped over the course of a “night of terror” by incarcerated men who had bribed the guards for keys to their cells. Last December, as New York state extended the statute of limitations to seek damages for sexual assault, at least 750 formerly incarcerated women moved to take legal action against state prisons.
And, Jones said, “No one seems to understand the concept of what it means to be a criminalized survivor, that many are criminalized for surviving sexual violence, and most incarcerated women are survivors.” To her point, a 2016 report found that 87% of incarcerated women survived sexual violence at some point in their life; in contrast, fewer than 1% of rapes lead to convictions. A quarter of women who called 9-1-1 to report sexual assault or were involved in an intimate partner violence incident say they were arrested or threatened with arrest, themselves.
There’s no such thing as a feminist prison, regardless of who runs the prison or the altruistic language they may use, Jones and Nelson say—not when the modern prison system is ultimately a product of its history, Nelson emphasizes. “The choice to control social behavior through violence has never been an answer to alleviate anything—it’s built on a foundation that requires violence to make it work, that is forever tied to that violence.”