What Massachusetts Prisoners Blog About

By Jean Trounstine

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 BlogPhoto courtesy cartoonstock.com

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. 

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(This article first appeared on BostonMag.com and is excerpted here by permission.)

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Jean Trounstine

Jean Trounstine is an activist, teacher and author/editor of five published books, including the highly praised Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women’s Prison. She worked at Framingham Women’s Prison for ten years where she directed eight plays, and in 1991, she co-founded the women’s branch of Changing Lives Through Literature, an internationally-known reading intervention for probationers.  She has written numerous articles about her work, most recently for Boston Magazine: “For the Massachusetts Parole Board, It’s Time for a Change,” November, 2012. She takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick by blogging for Boston Daily, the Rag Blog and at “Justice With Jean,” www.jeantrounstine.com.