Journal of the Indiana Academy of the Social Sciences

Document Type



The Indiana Women’s Prison, originally known as the Indiana Reformatory Institution for Women and Girls, is considered the first separate prison for women in the United States. We believe that distinction belongs instead to Catholic institutions commonly referred to as “Magdalene Laundries” that were established throughout the nation beginning in the 1840s and that served as private prisons for women whose sexuality offended mainstream society. We first discovered the existence of a Magdalene Laundry in Indianapolis as part of research on the early history of our prison. In digitizing records for the original inmates, we found that none were in for sex-related offenses. We discovered a Catholic prison that had opened in Indianapolis five months before the Indiana Reformatory Institution for Women and Girls. We have since found 15 Catholic women’s prisons that existed before the one in Indianapolis opened, beginning with Louisville, Kentucky, in 1843, and another 23 before 1900.

We discuss attributes that clearly establish these institutions as private prisons to which state and city courts sentenced women and girls for sex- related crimes. As in the now-infamous Magdalene Laundries in Ireland, women in U.S. institutions were forced to perform hard labor without compensation and were subjected to cruel and sustained punishment, often for years.

In incarcerating, abusing, and stigmatizing thousands of women, these prisons played an important role in shaping attitudes toward female sexuality and identity for 150 years, yet we seem to have lost all memory of them. We contend that this historical amnesia hinders our understanding of prisons and marginalized women, past and present.