Who Would Believe a Prisoner?

Indiana Women’s Carceral Institutions, 1848–1920

A groundbreaking collective work of history by a group of incarcerated scholars that resurrects the lost truth about the first women’s prison

“Inmates at America’s oldest women’s prison are writing a history of it—and exploding the myth of its benevolent founders.” —Slate

A Ms. Magazine Most Anticipated Book

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.

With contributions from ten incarcerated or formerly incarcerated women, the result is like nothing ever produced in the historical literature: a document that is at once a shocking revelation of the roots of America’s first prison for women, and also a meditation on incarceration itself. Who Would Believe a Prisoner? is a book that will be read and studied for years to come as the nation continues to grapple with the crisis of mass incarceration.


“An ambitious and frequently disturbing history. . . . [Who Would Believe a Prisoner?] is a forceful critique of the roots of the carceral state.”
Publishers Weekly
“A must-read in the new era of gender rights, Who Would Believe a Prisoner? is a bold compilation of truth gestated by a combination of education, allyship, and tenacity. The authors, ten members of the Indiana Women’s History Project, explore the past with an intense intellectual curiosity likely owed to their confinement and fear that it would erase their full humanity.”
—Vivian Nixon, writer in residence, Square One Project, Columbia University
“Incisive. . . . Impressive and meticulously documented.”
Public Books
“From inside the walls of a prison, the authors of Who Would Believe a Prisoner? created something authentic and revolutionary: the story of the very institution that was the root of their oppression. In the voices of these incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women, we can hear the truth of what incarceration does to human beings—and also the possibility for genuine reform.”
—Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life and author of Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women
Who Would Believe a Prisoner? is a work of historical scholarship that operates like a telescope, extending into the past to get a closer look at how sex-segregated incarceration operated in its early days, and then retracting back to the present to analyze findings within a contemporary, anti-carceral framework.”
The New Yorker

News and Reviews


Read an excerpt from Who Would Believe a Prisoner? in Inquest.

The New Yorker

Read a review of Who Would Believe a Prisoner? in The New Yorker.

The 19th

Read an interview with the editors of Who Would Believe a Prisoner? in The 19th.

Publishers Weekly

Read a review of Who Would Believe a Prisoner? in Publishers Weekly.

Goodreads Reviews