"Who Would Believe a Prisoner?" chronicles America's first separate prison for women

I remember reading Anastazia Schmid's essay, "Crafting the Perfect Woman: How Gynecology, Obstetrics, and American Prisons Operate to Construct and Control Women," published in "Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics," and being in awe of the feat of conducting such in-depth research and prescient historical analysis while incarcerated. The essay was re-published in the book Abolishing Carceral Society.

Smidt was part of an educational project at Indiana Women's Prison that transformed into the Indiana Women's History Project.

The research of this collective of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, and the university professors they learned and researched with, has now been published as Who Would Believe a Prisoner: Indiana Women's Carceral Institutions, 1948-1920 by the New Press.

"What if prisoners were to write the history of their own prison? What might that tell them—and all of us—about the roots of the system that incarcerates so many millions of Americans?

In this groundbreaking and revelatory volume, a group of incarcerated women at the Indiana Women's Prison have assembled a chronicle of what was originally known as the Indiana Reformatory Institute for Women and Girls, founded in 1873 as the first totally separate prison for women in the United States. In an effort that has already made the national news, and which was awarded the Indiana History Outstanding Project for 2016 by the Indiana Historical Society, the Indiana Women's Prison History Project worked under conditions of sometimes-extreme duress, excavating documents, navigating draconian limitations on what information incarcerated scholars could see or access, and grappling with the unprecedented challenges stemming from co-authors living on either side of the prison walls."

Founder and emeritus director of the Indiana Women's Prison higher education program, Kelsey Kauffman, penned the preface explaining the context of the project. Michelle Daniel Jones, a former prisoner at the institution released in 2017, now a doctoral student in American Studies at New York University, explains the approach to the research in the introductory chapter.

The book is organized into three sections: 1) Indiana's First Prisons, Homes, and Reformatories for Women; 2) Sex Sexuality, and Control Over Women's Bodies; and 3) Indiana's House of the Good Shepard.

As explained by Candace Norwood at The 19th, "The researchers inside the prison had no access to the internet and had to request copies of historic records to be brought in by professors and outside volunteers. That required photocopying hundreds of pages that could be brought through prison security, as well as keeping track of all the notes of the nearly 30 scholars who contributed. 'This book was an enormous pain in the ass put together, because the authors were being kept in a cage,' said Elizabeth Nelson, a co-editor for the book and an assistant professor of medical humanities and health studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis."

The Indiana Women's Prison History Project members include Michelle Daniel Jones (editor), Anastazia Schmid, Kimberly Baldwin, Lara Campbell, Nicole Hayes, Rheann Kelly, Christina Kovats, Natalie Menley, Molly Whitted, and Michelle Williams.

Check out this interview from The 19th with Jones and Nelson about the entire project. "The title of the book comes from the story of Eva Green, who was incarcerated in the Indiana State Prison in Jeffersonville. She was sexually assaulted and contracted syphilis from a hospital steward in the prison. She stood up for herself and took it to court when she could. She even got women to come from the prison to testify on her behalf. The warden of the prison was the lawyer for the steward in the court hearing. So here Eva was, sitting with these sores on her body from syphilis, and at one point the warden says, "You can't believe that woman. I've caught her in a thousand lies." And that was the end of it; the steward walked away."

Though now studying for her Ph.D. at Rutgers, the Ph.D. program in History at Harvard University admitted Jones in 2017. The New York Times reported, "She was also among 18 selected from more than 300 applicants to Harvard University's history program. But in a rare override of a department's authority to choose its graduate students, Harvard's top brass overturned Ms. Jones's admission after some professors raised concerns that she played down her crime in the application process. Elizabeth Hinton, one of the Harvard historians who backed Ms. Jones, called her 'one of the strongest candidates in the country last year, period.' The case 'throws into relief,' she added, the question of 'how much do we really believe in the possibility of human redemption?'