Reentry and reform can take root when prisoners are able to maintain connections with their families and communities. One website is making great strides in building those bridges online.
BetweentheBars.org aims to humanize prisoners and open a dialogue between the millions of incarcerated Americans and the public. The site launched last year, growing out of work at the MIT Center for Civic Media by Charlie DeTar and others. It's a refreshing initiative in a field that usually holds technology and communications at arm's length.
DeTar's site is a brilliant idea. Thanks to a recent redesign, it's also a well-executed one. Between the Bars relies on the help of volunteers to scan posts from prisoners and post them directly to the web.
Once prisoners are approved as bloggers for the site, they can essentially blog by mail, directly from their cell. Comments are printed and mailed back to the author. Site visitors are asked to transcribe posts in order to facilitate searching and easy reading. Several hundred prisoners are now blogging for the site, with many more waiting for approval–and comment traffic is picking up.
Prisoners' posts range from pen pal notes and poems to drawings and thoughtful commentary. One blogger, John (Jennifer) Gann, writes about her experiences as a transgender prisoner.
Another blogger, William D. Linley, a Marine veteran, writes about suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and urges readers to seek help if they have experienced symptoms.
Several members of his platoon found his posts and left messages of support.
“(Linley's post) was a powerfully moving example of what I had hoped Between the Bars could accomplish,” DeTar told me recently. “The site is helping to break down barriers and stigma and allowed for people to build real connections.”
Between the Bars doesn't only build a bridge to the world outside prison. It also gives prisoners a chance to hone skills essential in the 21st century: writing, storytelling and digital communication.
Too many prisoners today walk out after decades of isolation and find themselves lost in a world transformed by mobile phones and Facebook. Between the Bars gives them a head start on adjusting to a digital world.
Projects like this will only survive if those of us outside of prisons offer our support.
DeTar and his collaborators need our help to ensure that Between the Bars thrives. The simplest way you can help is to comment on a post. That will help build a conversation with a strong network of bloggers. “Commenting on the post is like giving a small gift of thanks to the author, and on these posts–where the writers aren't free–it's even more critical.
If you want to get more involved, contact De Tar at email@example.com and volunteer to help. The site needs volunteers in Boston to help with scanning, mailing and logistics, and could also use virtual volunteers around the world.
Matt Kelley is the online communications manager at The Innocence Project. Views expressed here are his alone. He welcomes reader comments.