Women walk through the courtyard to lunch at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis on May 17, 2017.

At the oldest prison in the U.S., on the west side of Indianapolis, Vanessa Thompson sat on a bunk in her cell, watching television. It was early 2015, the seventeenth year of her incarceration.
On TV, then-mayoral candidate Joe Hogsett was talking about a stubborn Indianapolis problem: 10,000 abandoned houses and lots, a remnant of factory closures and the mortgage crisis. Suddenly, Thompson had an idea, a way to redeem all those valueless homes while opening a door for prisoners just like her.
Born in Georgia and raised in Louisiana in what she said was a sexually abusive household, Thompson quit school at age 13 and was placed in foster care the same year. She began running away and became addicted to drugs for the next decade, she said. In 1998, she was implicated along with two others in the murder of a 16-year-old in a crack cocaine-related dispute; she was convicted …