Although inmates are denied Internet access in jail, they can still blog — albeit in a different form. Their sketches, poems and musings circulate online after being posted by those outside of prison. There are dozens of these blogs, but inmates need tech-savvy friends or family to maintain them.
For those without such connections, Between the Bars offers an alternative. Charlie DeTar and Benjamin Mako Hill, fellows at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, conceived of a blogging platform for prisoners in 2008 after America reached an infamous milestone: one out of 100 U.S. adults were in jail.
The duo launched the website in October 2010, took a brief hiatus, and relaunched the site in April 2011. Thus far, there are more than 150 participants from more than 18 states — and these numbers keep growing through word of mouth.
To post on the blog, inmates send handwritten letters to Between the Bars, whose team then scans them and uploads them as PDFs. The group decided that scanning the letters, rather than transcribing them, would be the most efficient way to get them online.
They later realized that displaying the originals could also foster deeper personal connections. “You get a much clearer sense of somebody’s identity when you’re reading their real handwriting instead of standard computer font,” DeTar told TechNewsDaily.
A human connection
Once the letters are online, anyone can comment on them or create a transcript. To keep in communication, the bloggers receive paper copies of their posts, along with any comments they received. Currently, the team at Between the Bars is focused on generating more commenting activity.
“People are writing because they want to get a human connection, they want to talk to someone, so any comment they can get on a blog post is really helpful and really meaningful,” DeTar said.
The topics and tone of the letters vary widely. One recent letter, written by inmate William Medina, reads, “I am composing this communiqué from another world. A cold, distant, isolated planet. A sphere that consumes personalities and human identities.”
Another letter, written by inmate Timothy Muise, is typical in that it tells a story and begins: “Many years ago I was a sternman on my brother’s lobsterboat the Genesis III.”
Some prisoners choose not to write anything at all, and opt instead to submit sketches.
Blogging with purpose
The creators of Between the Bars said they have three main goals for the project. The first is helping inmates maintain their weaker, more casual connections.
“The more mundane connections that we tend to take for granted are actually the types of connections that help us to get by in life transitions,” DeTar said. “If we have to find a new job, generally your mother is not going to be able to find you a job. A friend of a friend might. That’s really the level of connection that we’re trying to support.”
As a space for self-expression, Between the Bars also encourages inmates to retain their individual identities. Since many prisons have a policy of referring to their populations as "offenders," this practice tends to reinforce a criminal self, while weakening the personal one, DeTar said.
In fact, sociological evidence shows that those who maintain self-perceptions separate from the system fare better when they are released. Thus, the act of blogging may help lower recidivism rates.
One letter at a time
DeTar and Hill also hope Between the Bars will help change general attitude toward those in jail.
By spreading “human stories from prison,” those on the outside can learn to sympathize with an otherwise stigmatized and underrepresented group. Empathy and awareness may prompt changes in behavior, such as the refusal of employers to hire those with criminal backgrounds.
“Yes, these people committed a crime, yes they made a mistake, but they’re still people,” said DeTar.
“They’re going to be doing much better in society if we can communicate with them, if we can help them socialize more and not just ignore them.”