What Massachusetts Prisoners Blog About

A few prisoners in Massachusetts are finding their voice through blogging. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

This is the first in a three-part series that looks at what prisoners in Massachusetts do online.

behind barAbove left: Daniel Royal’s blog post for his daughter that’s transcribed into a blog post; above right: Andrew Halfpenny’s bio page before it’s transcribed. (Images via betweenthebars.org)

Prisoners are probably one of the last groups anyone would expect to have access to their own blog. Some might argue that they should never get such a privilege. But keeping in mind that more than 95 percent of prisoners will one day return to society, we might consider how we want them to return—remorseful, sure, but also educated and aware of what’s going on in the world they re-enter. That’s how to help them become productive citizens.

A few progressive programs around the country are stepping up to give prisoners tools to tell their stories online, add their perspective to the conversation, receive feedback from readers, and get up to speed with 2012 technology. Some San Quentin prisoners in California express their ideas through hundreds of questions posted on Quora like “What advice would you give to your 10-year-old self?” and “What does it feel like to kill someone?” In Maine, prisoners mail letters to family and friends which then get posted with comments on The Political Prisoner Blog.

In Massachusetts, MIT has grabbed the lead in this area, thanks to its Center for Civic Media. Founded by PhD students Charlie DeTar and Benjamin Mako Hill, Between the Bars bills itself as “a weblog platform for people in prison through which 1 percent of Americans who are in prison can tell their stories.”

The site has more than 5,000 actual documents from prisoners, some incarcerated in Massachusetts, many from all over the country. Most of the documents are uncategorized, but about 500 fall into several areas: cartoons, letters, essays, and poems. Comments from readers are snail-mailed back to the prisoners, who get a chance to respond. Not exactly the instantaneous world we know, but a boon for offsetting the isolation that prisoners often feel.

DeTar says that most of the authors list their first and last names, wanting to be known for their writing just as any published author would. One such prisoner is Andrew Halfpenny, who is incarcerated in a maximum-security prison in Massachusetts. Although some have hundreds, Halfpenny has just two entries. In his profile, Halfpenny (or #W93984) describes himself as wanting to “enlighten” people about prison. He is not alone. Many prisoners take to the page to tell their stories—most commonly in letters and poetry.

In a post dated November 1, Halfpenny touches on the difficulty of rehabilitation behind bars:

“It is my personal opinion that in no way, shape, or form is the goal of incarceration rehabilitation. The idea is laughable. It would seem that recidivism would be better prevented with increased familial contact. However, behavioral infractions are punished by restricting contact with the outside world. This is achieved by prevention of phone calls or visits. … Even the mail policies are unjustly punitive. I recently had research for a correspondence course mailed to me. Said research was deemed contraband for being excessive in pages. I don’t know how this policy promotes a safe environment but it absolutely hinders my own personal rehabilitation.”

The post has two thoughtful replies, one by Aaron K., who knew Halfpenny outside. He writes that Halfpenny “… had a lot of promise, he was even in gifted classes. He’s just like anybody else; he could be your son or brother; the only difference is the hand he was dealt.”Aaron K. encourages him to “stay strong.” And so Halfpenny exists online, beyond his prison cell.

Daniel Royal, another Massachusetts prisoner, has just one post that’s addressed to his daughter, Justice. In his profile, Royaldescribes himself as part Cape Verdean and says that he loves knowledge and helping others. The post is titled “Strength’s Way,” and is written with a sense of longing:

“As you have lived this many years, I have died inside many times, broken down in the darkness of stone walls and firey skies, feeling so week inside, listening to my soul cry, being sorry for each day we’re apart….Forgive me Justice for being away from you for so long. I pray that you never resent me or blame yourself. For I am the one who has been wrong.”

Massachusetts should consider upping the ante from 1 percent and permitting more prisoners the opportunity to blog. Those of us who’ve taught writing already know that giving prisoners a voice can only help them become more aware and more humane. With 95 percent eventually leaving prison, that opportunity can only help us become a more compassionate, safer society.

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  • http://www.realcostofprisons.org Lois Ahrens

    Many prisoners in Massachusetts have their political/ analytical writing and research posted on the Real Cost of Prisons website: Writing from Prison http://www.realcostofprisons.org/writing/.
    Some of the subjects included are the drug lab crisis, access to health care, parole, or lack of it, juvenile lifers and more.

    • agingcynic

      I couldn’t resist clicking on the link. Among the highly footnoted auteurs are Dirk Greineder and Gordon Haas, both highly educated men who, according to the Commonwealth, murdered their wives in cold blood. I’m guessing that the other incarcerated lifers quoted didn’t wind up there without extensive judicial contact either. When people start supporting the victims in a meaningful way, I’ll start losing sleep over these gentlemen.

      “The Greatest Trick the Devil Ever Pulled was convincing the World he didn’t Exist.”, Charles Baudelaire

  • tam neville

    Thank you Boston Mag. for the opportunity to read these two blog posts. They are very enlightening. I imagine that those who run the prisons might not be too happy about these on-the-spot incidents being reported. They are very convincing –

    Tam Neville

  • Jacob Dent

    A prison administrator is quite the ostrich in that it can have seven-eighths of its body exposed but as long as it buries his or her head in the sand and live within their own reality, they can create some of the most inhuman methods of treating the “bad” human beings convicted of crimes. It is not the shocking event, the brutal beating, or even the occasional killing of inmates due to incompetence or brutality that should awaken a sleeping public, but it is the day-by-day dehumanization of the convicted that makes the man or woman more susceptible to accepting the fact that he or she will be worse, no matter what good is left within. As a society, we have not scratched the surface of why some deviate into criminality, and why some do not. Every criminologist wants some magic potion that can cure society’s “crime issue” in one fell swoop, but the true reality is, if we can ever hope to begin impacting crime, we must learn how to punish and how not to punish the offender. The beginning step is to listen to the voices from inside the prison and begin a communication that brings the offender, the victim, and the sword of justice onto one level playing field. Once the dialogue is begun, it must continue, and then every voice should be heard equally. Action follows dialogue, and proof of good intent by the offender is required. Every proof offered is documented, and then an earned reintegration must be the end result of the incarceration process. Fairness and non-arbitrary action must dominate every process. Many will say, what about the victims who lost their lives or who were irreparably harmed? My answer is: We can honor the memory of the victims of crime by creating men and women who no longer desire to commit future crime, and more importantly, create ex-offenders who will serve society by deterring others from following their past example. Let us create solutions instead of getting stuck in a world of recrimination and condemnation. That’s not soft on the criminal, that’s smart about how we utilize our scarce resources in this thing we call civilization. If we create a long-term solution now, will that be our gift and our legacy we leave to the children in the next century? In just 93 years it will be the year 2100. Many who read these words now will say they will be dead, but their grand children and their great grand children will be here. Why not work on a justice model that permits reintegration that is intelligent and earned? I hear the voices of the past say that such a thing will never work, and all I ask is, why is it that you’re all not willing to try?