As we read and hear more about the House of Refuge For Women built in 1887 in Hudson, NY, we wonder where this institution fits within the history of women’s imprisonment in the United States. So, the first task seems to be to establish which prison was “the first prison for women”.

But there seems to be some disagreement on this. Some sources (Wikipedia among others) point to the Indiana Women’s Prison built in 1873 one mile east of downtown Indianapolis. According to these sources, the Indiana Women’s Prison was not only the United States’ first separate institution for female prisoners, but was also the first maximum-security female correctional facility in the nation. Formerly, female felons had been detained at the Indiana State Prison, located first in Jeffersonville and later in Clarksville. When Quaker prison reformers Rhoda Coffin and Sarah J. Smith learned of the abuses suffered by women prisoners at the hands of the male guards, they lobbied for an end to sexual abuse of women in state prisons. In 1869, their bill for a “Female Prison and Reformatory Institution for Girls and Women” passed the state legislature and served as a precedent to prison reformers across the country.

Other sources point to Mount Pleasant Female Prison, a much earlier facility dedicated to women established in 1839 in Ossining, New York as the very first women’s prison. Randall G. Shelden (2010) writes about how female prisoners at majority male prisons were treated in the 19th century as the reason for this prison:

“The conditions of the confinement of women were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and at risk of sexual abuse from male guards. Rachel Welch became pregnant at Auburn (prison in NY) while serving a punishment in a solitary cell; she died after childbirth as the result of a flogging by a prison official earlier in her pregnancy. Her death prompted New York officials to build the Mount Pleasant Prison for women on the grounds of Sing Sing [Prison] in Mount Pleasant, New York in 1839.”

Sing Sing Prison For Women

Sing Sing Prison For Women. Photo “Women’s Prisons Past and Present” by Clifford Young, Chief Inspector, State Commission of Correction, Albany, NY, The Summary Press, Elmira Reformatory 1932

If you can help shed light on which of these or other prisons was the first prison for women in the United States and why, please send us your comments.