When I picked up my review copy of Who Would Believe a Prisoner?, I already knew I was holding an astonishing book in my hand. It is the culmination of ten years of research conducted by the Indiana Women’s Prison History Project: a collective of incarcerated scholars who studied the 175-year-old history of women’s carceral institutions in Indiana. The project began in 2013 as a summer course open to graduates of the college program at the Indiana Women’s Prison (IWP). What began as a modest plan to create an informational pamphlet on the history of the IWP sprawled into a decade of inquiry that would completely upend common assumptions about the history of American women’s prisons. With the help of partnering professors, the collective shared their groundbreaking work via teleconferencing technology at academic conferences and won awards such as the Indiana History Outstanding Project for 2016 by the Indiana Historical Society. Their work was featured in international news outlets and has gained the attention of scholars in numerous research fields. And now the prolific work of this collective is encapsulated in a single book, available to the public for less than 25 dollars (a steal compared to the oft-high price of academic books on confinement).
The title Who Would Believe a Prisoner? echoes a question posed 100 years ago by an incarcerated man named J Harrie Banka, who compiled the narratives of fellow Hoosiers imprisoned in Indiana. The researchers of this book follow Banka’s example by privileging the stories of incarcerated women, mostly relying on obscure prison literature, archived newspaper articles, and court documents from long-forgotten scandals perpetrated by prison administrators. By centering their research focus on the testimonies of incarcerated people, the authors of this book shift long-held attitudes that the women’s prison system in Indiana was established by benevolent Quakers who shielded women and girls from violence and hardship. Instead, this book reveals an Indiana where women were kidnapped or disappeared; flogged and water-boarded; psychologically tortured; sold into sexual slavery; subjected to medical experiments against their will; and more.
This would be groundbreaking work if it was authored by seasoned, tenured faculty. Rather, this book was created by scholars with no internet, limited access to computers, and a neglectfully curated prison library, in an environment where participants can be removed from projects and sent to solitary confinement. That these authors overcame such restrictions to create this book is an honest-to-goodness miracle.
To be clear, my praise for this book does not come from a paternalistic, “courtesy clap” type of attitude. Historical books can be dull or contain minimal new findings or can have limited appeal. This book is a page turner, filled with so many discoveries that I don’t have space to detail them all. This work is a must-read for abolitionists and confinement researchers. More importantly, this book is accessible and engaging enough that I think all Hoosiers should read it to better know how this country’s modern prison system was built in our backyards.
Dr. Adam Henze is a researcher, educator, and spoken word artist, and has shared his work in over 30 states, as well as Puerto Rico, Canada, England, Ireland, and the United Arab Emirates. Adam is the Director of Literacy Programming at Flanner House and is the Director of Power of a Sentence, a creative writing program in Indiana prisons. Adam received his PhD in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education from Indiana University. He is a Bureau Speaker for Indiana Humanities and was the Official Poet of the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
The Indiana Women’s Prison History Project was founded by a group of incarcerated scholars at the Indiana Women’s Prison. The author of Who Would Believe a Prisoner? (The New Press), the group has garnered national acclaim in the media and among scholarly organizations and was awarded the Indiana History Outstanding Project for 2016 by the Indiana Historical Society.
Michelle Daniel Jones, ABD, is a fourth-year doctoral student in American Studies at New York University. As an organizer, collaborator, and subject matter expert, she creates opportunities to speak truth to power and serves in the development and operation of taskforces and initiatives to reduce harm and end mass incarceration. Michelle is board president of Constructing Our Future, a housing organization created by incarcerated women in Indiana.
Elizabeth Angeline Nelson serves as an assistant professor of medical humanities and health studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI). Her specialty is the history of medicine and mental health care, and her research examines the history of patient-staff relationships in mental institutions. In her teaching and research, she strives for public engagement, drawing on her experience as director of public programs at the Indiana Medical History Museum (2014-2017). She also coordinates the Indiana Women’s Prison History Project, in which incarcerated women produce critical historical studies of gender, sexuality, and incarceration in Indiana.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.