Prison blogging

One of the goals of Global Voices was to give people on the Internet access to voices they might not otherwise hear. For us, this has meant amplifying, translating and contextualizing voices from every corner of the world where someone has been blogging.

Early in our project, I’d hoped that we’d be able to feature the voices of bloggers in prison. There are more than 9 million people in prison worldwide – that’s a much larger population than many nations we cover. (By the way, the US is the world’s leading jailer, both in absolute terms – 2.09 million people in the prison system – and proportional terms – 0.71% of Americans are in prison. We beat out China and Russia in absolute terms, Belarus and Russia in proportional terms.)

We’ve covered people blogging from prison, including Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam/Alaa Abdel Fatteh, who posted extensively from prison in Cairo, where he was held for participating in a demonstration in support of a free Egyptian judiciary. Alaa blogged by writing on paper, passing the paper to his wife Manal, who posted his words on their joint blog. (If you have plans to blog from prison any time in the future, it’s a good idea to make sure your spouse is also a blogger.) Near as I can tell, this is the method – more or less – practiced by all prison bloggers, most of whom write letters to a contact on the outside who makes the post online.

While covering the detention of Alaa, Abdel Monem, Kareem Soliman and other prisoners of conscience, linking to other prisoners has been more controversial within the GV community. GV is starting to be blocked by some governments, and having a great deal of prison-focused content might serve as an excuse for a repressive government to block the site. It’s been argued that having GV closely associated with content from “ordinary” prisoners (i.e., people jailed for conventional crimes, not for political speech) might threaten the security of some of our correspondents in particularly repressive regimes.

As a result, I think we’ve probably neglected to link to Thai Prison Life, an amazingly comprehensive website about the prison experience of Panrit Daoruang, better known as “Gor”, the creator of the thailandlife.com website. The site is administered by Richard Barrow, who was previously one of Gor’s teachers, and who urges visitors to the site to visit Gor in prison, bringing him food from the prison store. Gor speaks frankly about his struggles with drug addiction as well as about Klong Dan prison, where he’s serving time.

US-based prison blogs are a bit more common, perhaps reflecting our national leadership in incarceration. Jon’s Jail Journal – the
blog of British rave promoter and former stockbroker Shaun Attwood – began as an activist project and has turned into a chronicle of his romance with a woman visiting him in prison. Attwood was initially held on drug charges in the infamous Maricopa County jail, where a sadistic warden prides himself on humiliating and mistreating prisoners. He’s continued to chronicle his experiences, sending letters to his father in the UK. While the focus is no longer directly on exposing Sherrif Joe Arpaio, it’s a moving chronicle of the challenges of incarcerated life.

Meet Vernon is the weblog of death row inmate Vernon Lee Evans, a convicted murderer incarcerated and facing the death penalty in Maryland. The blog has been part of a campaign to seek a stay of execution for Evans, which has succeeded thus far on a technical challenge about the cruelty of lethal injection as a method of execution. The blog has been dark since June 2006. But there’s a growing number of active prison blogs, including a set of blogs hosted by prisonblogs.net, a project started in the wake of video blogger Josh Wolf’s detention in federal prison to provide blogspace for prisoners throughout the prison community.

There are predictable angry reactions to blogging from prison, including from the always thoughtful and charming Michelle Malkin, who asks:

I thought the 1995 Zimmer amendment, which banned prison luxuries and has withstood constitutional challenges, was supposed to stop this nonsense. Maybe it’s time for someone in Congress to update the law.

If not, what’s next? The Menendez brothers sharing photos on Flickr? Charles Manson podcasts? A convicted al Qaeda terrorists’ group blog from Supermax

I assume Malkin is in the same camp as Arpaio and would like to see prisoners banned from writing letters, placed on chain gangs, dressed in pink underwear and housed in tents in the middle of a desert. For those who’ve got hopes for prison to involve rehabilitation, not just punishment, there’s an argument to be made that more prison blogging would be a good thing.

My friend Kevin Wallen runs the amazing Students Expressing Truth project within the Jamaican prison system. The program encourages prisoners to teach each other technical, media, creative and life skills, and produces radio programs that are broadcast throughout the Jamaican prison system and, through Wallen, on a major Kingston radio station. In the process of their work with SET, prisoners gain skills that they can use when they return to society. The program has graduated over 100 former inmates and has an astounding 0% recidivism rate, as compared to a 50% systemwide rate.

Reducing recidivism is one of the goals of a new initiative by songwriter Billy Bragg, Jail Guitar Doors, which does something very, very simple: it provides acoustic guitars and percussion instruments for prisoners in UK jails. In a nod to Woody Guthrie – whose guitar bore the slogan “This machine kills fascists” – some of the guitars bear the legend “This machine kills time.”

There are reasonable concerns about letting people in jail blog – Malkin references a horrific story about jail writings of a convicted murderer about his crimes being published online to taunt the victim’s family. But I’m not convinced that the story about a very sick man sending letters to another very sick man who posted them should get people to ignore the lessons of Wallen’s success. Helping inmates build skills for the outside world is a part of rehabilitation. And hearing what life is like in prison sheds light on an otherwise dark corner of our world, a corner that’s grown quite huge in modern American life.

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3 Responses to Prison blogging

  1. feng37 says:

    Hi Ethan,
    I didn’t spend much time poking around (Google search for ‘prison cop’+’blog’: http://tinyurl.com/27ypdu) but I was still able to find a bit.

    This blog has a few cellphone video clips from the inside, prisoners doing the exercise routine that public school students do every morning, also two clips of prisoners singing sappy love songs:
    http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/1088125611

    But then this blog which seemingly comes from a prison guard looks at a lot of things from the prisoner’s angle, a lot on relationships, also mentions that cellphones aren’t allowed in prisons:
    http://blog.sina.com.cn/u/1236082332

    There’s a link to a website affiliated with that blog which itself links to several prison websites from around the country:
    http://thewestrenjail.2008red.com/

    This website is kind of interesting, although a bit dusty, the ‘prison open information exchange web’
    http://tinyurl.com/yvp7ex

    I have a friend here in Guangzhou who up until last summer was a prison guard; he blogs too, but seldom about work—although he’s quite the poet and weaves in plenty of prison themes—focusing instead on softcore pornography, which has led to several of his previous blogs being deleted or shut down:
    http://gh333.blogcn.com/

    Sorry, back on topic, Danwei.org has had some really interesting related posts (in English): http://tinyurl.com/2hxxrx and http://tinyurl.com/2fzk4j

  2. Chris Richard says:

    Here is a great blog from a former inmate, Rodney Frost. He tells a lot of fascinating stories about readjusting to life on the outside, as well as struggling with his demons.

  3. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Lowering the bar for outrage

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