Between the Bars is a blogging platform for prisoners. Because prisoners almost never have access to the internet, the project works by scanning letters from prisoners sent through the postal mail and posting them on the web. Visitors can transcribe the scanned letters. Comments left by visitors to the website are mailed back to the authors in prison.
U.S. prison populations are staggeringly high and growing. The U.S. has 25 percent of the world's prisoners, despite having only 5 percent of it's population — one in every 100 adults (more than any other country, including authoritarian China). One in every three black males will go to prison. Life in prison is not pretty: Prisoners frequently report terrible conditions, including infestation by rodents, fights between inmates, and sexual abuse (often perpetrated by guards). But this is only half the story; when prisoners are released, they face difficult barriers to civic participation. Ex-convicts often face limited rights to vote, lower long-term earning trajectories, and difficulty finding jobs once they get out. Who is willing to hire a recently released ex-convict? Faced with this stigma and poor social safety nets, it's no wonder so many return to crime.
Prisoners have no access to broadcast media, and especially no access to the Internet. Phone service costs in prison can be extortionate — often several dollars per minute. Our project aims to provide a gateway between the Internet and postal mail. This makes it available to nearly all prisoners and places our in the context of existing systems of mail censorship and monitoring used by prisons.
We have several different goals with the project. First, we want to help give prisoners a voice to speak and express themselves beyond the criminal identity forced on them by a criminal system that by, policy, refers to inmates as "offenders." We don't believe that prisoners' right to express themselves should end at the prison gate, and our projects aims to give them the tools to speak from inside. Second, we want to help humanize prisoners in the eyes of the public, who, due to the barriers created by imprisonment, often treat prisoners as outcasts and second-class citizens. Third, we want to help prisoners support "weak" social ties. Sociologist have shown that our networks of "acquaintances" provide critical help in tasks like finding jobs and form the basis of our social safety nets. While prisoners can use phone calls and letters to stay in contact with their closest friends and family members (strong ties), weak ties are often destroyed by incarceration. We hope that blogging can provide a means of maintaining these connections.
To protect the prisoners and the public, we've spent the last two years refining the design of the system, interviewing stakeholders in the prison industry, and working with the MIT ethics board to ensure that our protocols minimize the potential for harm. Every prisoner writing for Between the Bars writes using their real name; we don't offer anonymity or personal communication. Any correspondence which is threatening, illegal, or incriminatory is against our policy. Visitors to the site can flag posts as offensive, to ensure that others will have a positive experience. Through this work and subsequent research, we hope to learn whether blogging can live up to the hype and improve the lives of prisoners and the general public.
Our website just launched with our first two posts from our first author last week. Because we operate on the time scale of postal mail, the project is slow to ramp up. That said, in just the first week or so, we have "signed up" a dozen new authors who have signed up and hope to have many posts in the coming weeks. We'd love for you to stop by, read some posts, and join the discussion.
The site is currently is a not-for-profit research project being funded and developed by the MIT Center for Future Civic Media. The site is at http://betweenthebars.org. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.