Helping Gifted (and Incarcerated) Students Conduct Research – A Volunteer Opportunity

Some women without access to libraries, archives, or the Internet are making amazing discoveries. Want to help? 

April 21, 2016

It’s discouraging when students don’t get excited about their research. We librarians have this wild idea that being able to explore ideas, make critical judgments, and to have the wherewithal to create and share new ideas is a fundamentally important part of an undergraduate’s education. But it's hard work, because students don’t have a contextual knowledge base and the questions that they can ask relevant to a course don’t seem like they are genuinely theirs to ask.

When I learned about a group of students doing amazing research on the history of a women’s prison in Indiana I was inspired and filled with hope – yes, this kind of learning does matter. Yes, students without graduate degrees can take on this kind of exploration with doggedness and critical sophistication. Yes, they can claim a position to have a voice and recognize that they have something worthwhile to say. Mostly, I was just awed and excited about what they were doing because learning how to inquire matters and I wish my students could be so engaged.

What’s particularly striking is that these students don’t have the amenities that mine have. They can’t flip through books at the library shelves or make an appointment to visit the state archives or place interlibrary loan requests for articles that look interesting.  They can’t even Google it. They’re incarcerated in the prison they’re researching. And in spite of all that they’re up against, they’re amazing. Just mind-blowingly amazing.

I learned about their work thanks to an e-mail exchange with Kelsey Kauffman who teaches at the prison along with a dozen or so volunteer faculty (and wrote about it in Perspectives on History). Since 2012, she has coordinated the Higher Education Program at the Indiana Women’s Prison. Kauffman knows a thing or two about prisons. She not only worked as a prison officer, she literally wrote the book on it. Funding for education in Indiana prisons was eliminated in 2011, even though there’s plenty of evidence that it’s a worthwhile investment for society. Currently this shoestring operation is enrolling some 80 students in courses taught be volunteer faculty with the full encouragement of the prison – but without any budget.

Though Kauffman has expertise on prisons, her students made some unexpected discoveries while working on a history of the prison’s early years. Historians considered the Indiana Women’s Prison the first women’s prison in the nation. It turns out that’s debatable. Poring over archival records, the students were puzzled that none of the women in the prison’s early years had been sentenced for prostitution. After a lot of digging, they discovered “fallen” women were likely being sent to the House of the Good Shepherd, one of several laundries run by nuns, not unlike the infamous Magdalene laundries. They also raised critical questions about the much-lauded founders of the prison who could be quite brutal in their "reforms" and learned that a doctor who worked at the prison and was a highly regarded expert on gynecology was also an advocate for female circumcision and hysterectomies for women who were too sexually active. Imprisoned women were used in his research. Students have positively identified three of the prisoners as research subjects in a peer-reviewed article he wrote. There wasn't any informed consent involved.

A year ago, Rebecca Onion described their research (and the conditions under which they do it) in Slate. The students have presented their work at academic conferences by video link. Just last month, some of the students presented their research as part of a conference on women’s history in Indiana (including a paper on the dubious doctor). Watching them present their research gives me goosebumps. They’re so poised. So creative. So committed to their subjects and to the value of connecting the past and the present.

Currently some of the students are beginning a project to write plays about the early years of the prison. There’s plenty of dramatic material. The life of the “Duchess of Stringtown,” Indianapolis’s most prominent madam, was entangled with the work of the reformers who founded the prison. They’re hoping to complete the plays during Indiana’s bicentennial as a public history project.

Students in this program need more than teachers (though volunteers are always welcome if you’re an academic in the Indianapolis area). They need paper and pens. They need books. They could use a printer (one that can take a thumb drive; though the program has some donated computers, they can’t be networked). With enough funding, Department of Corrections staff wages could be paid so that the classes could be held one night a week. That would give more of the women a chance to attend classes, but it costs money, and this program can’t cost taxpayers a dime.

The other thing they could use is our time and expertise to track down primary and secondary sources that might help answer some of their questions – or spur new ones.

Here’s where my pitch comes in. I’d love to gather a group of people - librarians and others with access to the internet and libraries – who might be willing to spare some time chasing down information for these students who have questions but no direct access to resources. Could we create a kind of collective reference desk for these students? A clearinghouse where their questions and speculations can be posted and volunteers from afar could use whatever know-how and resources we have to help chase down information that might advance their research?

It won’t be easy. As Michelle Jones, one of the students, wrote in an essay published in Perspectives on History,

because we couldn’t directly sift through available materials, our research requests were filtered through another person’s judgment of what would be valuable to us. As our topic developed, following up on leads took weeks and sometimes months. Some students received more information than others; and sometimes the research provided wasn’t particularly useful.

This sounds familiar to librarians and to researchers of all kinds, used to dead ends and promising sources that turn out to be duds. But there’s the additional frustration of communication being hobbled. Not only are these students unable to visit libraries, simply sending an email costs these women about as much money as they can earn in a whole day. That’s the system.

The logistics are challenging, but even so, having access to research is worth it. Jones’s article concludes

As incarcerated students we are often frustrated by the unusual methods we are compelled to adopt, but we have come to weigh such difficulties against the riches of discovery, the expansion of our ideas and viewpoints, and the development of a clearer view of history.  

If you’d like to volunteer to help out at the Indiana Women’s Prison Higher Education Program Far-Away Reference Desk, I have a form where you can sign up. Feel free to share this link with librarians, historians, scholars, and research buffs of all kinds. It’s not just a worthy cause, I feel I owe these women something for the joy it brought me to see what they’ve accomplished with the help of Kelsey Kauffman and her fellow volunteer teachers.

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