Charlie DeTar, a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, fellow at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, and social justice activist, has been concerned about our criminal justice system for many years. He has watched the prison population skyrocket to over two million, and the gap between the number of African Americans and Caucasians behind bars grow exponentially. Knowing that one in three Black men will be incarcerated at some point in their lives, DeTar can’t help but draw parallels between the prison system and slavery. “The Fourteenth Amendment only outlawed slavery for those not being punished for a crime,” he says, “but what we have here is a dramatic accounting of the same practices of slavery that were going on 200 years ago.”
DeTar also recognizes the significant challenges that men and women face when they return to their communities after being incarcerated. Finding housing and employment can be quite a challenge for those with criminal records, as can accessing public assistance of any form. With so few resources available to formerly incarcerated men and women, it’s no wonder that the recidivism rate is over 50%.
Armed with this information, and passionate about providing a forum for the voices of incarcerated people, DeTar decided to create a blog where prisoners could post their stories. Between the Bars was initially launched as both a service and research project last October, and was met with an immediate influx of letters, stories, and poems from incarcerated writers. However, DeTar and his colleagues ran into some barriers to the research aspect of their project, and had to temporarily shut down the site. They re-launched in April, and already have been contacted by between 400 and 500 prisoners. Nearly 200 have sent in at least one post or profile.
When DeTar and his team of volunteers receive a post from someone in prison or jail, they scan it to the blog. Visitors to the site can assist in the transcription of the post, and are encouraged to comment on the posts that speak to them. These comments are then sent back to the writers, creating an opportunity for dialogue. For those behind bars, this is a valuable opportunity to feel connected with the world outside the razor wire. By “giving people a platform where they can speak in own voice,” the blog enables writers to form “a personal identity outside the dynamic of prison.” This identity, as well as the social ties they have fostered through Between the Bars, can be carried with prisoners when they are released, helping them to feel more connected to their community and more prepared to face the challenges that await them on the outside.
For those visiting the blog from the comfort of home, Between the Bars provides an opportunity to learn about life inside our nation’s correctional institutions from the perspective of those most affected by them. DeTar hopes the site will help “break through the tendency people have of viewing people in prison as “untouchable class”, and inspire more compassion and activism. Prior to creating Between the Bars, DeTar spent a great deal of time reading work by incarcerated writers, and was “fascinated by their inside perspective. Even the most mundane stories,” he reflects, “drive home just how unproductive the whole experience of prison is…if people on the outside can see what life is like in prison, if they see prisoners as humans, as complex individuals with hopes and desires, they might start working against the sense that tells us to treat them as the fearful other.”
DeTar reports that Between the Bars now has a waiting list of almost 150 prisoners. Due to the tremendous success of the project, he and his colleagues (all of whom are volunteers) are exploring ways of more efficiently managing the site so that they won’t have to turn anyone away. In the meantime, they will continue to post letters and send every comment back to the writers. The most important thing supporters of the blog can do, says DeTar, is post comments – the writers long for the chance to connect with us.