A prisoner from Mississippi and a professor from New York make an unlikely research team.
Leigh Ann Wheeler, a historian at Binghamton University, was first introduced to Glen Conley in 2017 by a prison chaplain familiar with her work on Anne Moody, a civil rights activist who published Coming of Age in Mississippi in 1968.
Since then, the pair has been collaborating: co-authoring book reviews, presenting at virtual academic conferences, and engaging with Wheeler’s undergraduate students in class discussions. In 2021, Conley is believed to be the first prisoner in Mississippi to participate in an academic conference when he was invited to present on Moody to the Western Association of Women Historians.
“Scholarship…behind bars is possible, but achieving it is not a simple process,” Conley said.
While they’ve met in person several times when Wheeler travels to Mississippi, they primarily rely on phone calls and the U.S. Postal Service — limited to 5 pages printed from the internet at a time — to collaborate.
“Phone calls are pricey. I can’t call him but must wait for him to call me. Mail is slow. Email and texting are not available. In-person visits are infrequent and difficult to arrange,” Wheeler said.
When Conley, who is currently working on his master’s degree in theology from Nations University, was at a different prison, he often had to rely on prison staff to conduct online searches and locate primary sources. They were often reluctant to help him:
“On numerous occasions when I asked…for assistance I was told that they already had enough to do and had no time to do volunteer work for inmates. One teacher even opined that inmates should be doing hard labor, not academic research.”
Staff often gave him nicknames such as “Mr. Smartass” and “Dr. Know-it-all.”
“Not to mention the dirty looks,” he added.
A new kind of collaboration
Their co-writing process involves Conley sending handwritten drafts, Wheeler typing it up and sending his typed draft and her own revisions back, and then editing over the phone.
“I would read him my latest version and we would edit it together on the phone with me rereading passages aloud, him correcting, arguing sometimes over the word,” she said. “I was also surprised to discover that such a writing collaboration is possible, and over the phone…and with the possibility…that someone else is listening in and, possibly, even recording our call.”
Currently, Wheeler and Conley are working with a group of 20 others in the Anne Moody Scholars Workshop to produce an edited collection of essays and website on the activist.
For Wheeler, working with Conley has given her new insight into what she thought she knew about prison. “I’ll be honest — as a ‘liberal’ I was, of course, concerned about mass incarceration, but I had no real understanding of how this vicious phenomenon affected people who are imprisoned and their families,” she said.
“Glen’s insights on prison, race, feminism, and a whole host of other issues are really interesting. I treasure our conversations and know that they are deepening my ability to understand and…to know that I can’t fully understand what his life is like.”