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.