Between the Bars brings blogging to prisons

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by Ellyn Fortino on April 12, 2012

The web site Between the Bars allows people in prison to share their stories and talents with the world through blogging, and it only costs them the price of a postage stamp.

No one from Austin is currently using the site; however, its creator says the site could be a benefit to the community, as the number of people in Illinois’ prison system disproportionately impacts the West Side.

When we think of a blogger, we think of someone who sits at his or her computer and uploads posts to the Internet. In prison, very rarely do prisoners have access to the Internet.

Also, some inmates may have missed out on the recent advances in technology and wouldn’t know how to blog even if they did have access.

So what Between the Bars sets out to do is upload prisoners’ hand-written letters, art work and poems to the site for them. From there, readers of the site can comment on various prisoners’ posts. The comments are then printed and mailed to the authors in prison.

The goal of the site, said one of its creators, Charlie DeTar, is to create a platform where inmates can express themselves and speak on their own behalf. It also allows communication with prisoners other than expensive prison phone calls and visitations, DeTar said.

The site is being used in various ways by its more than 300 authors, said DeTar, who runs the site from Boston.

Only three of the authors are from Illinois. That may be because the site has not done a large advertising campaign because of its small staff. Most of the people who have registered and use the site know about it through word of mouth, he said.

One writer does a daily meditation and writes about current events. Another author, a poet, sends in a couple of poems per week.

“There are folks who send in comics poking fun at life in prison,” DeTar said.

Not all of the entries are “super high quality, political or super interesting,” but there are enough that are really worth seeing, he added.

DeTar, who created the web site as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and launched it in 2008, said he knows there are limits to the site at the moment — there’s an eight-month wait list for authors to begin writing for Between the Bars, along with a lag in processing and uploading material.

Benjamin Sugar, a volunteer for the site, said there are roughly 350 bloggers and the site has published 2,950 total posts, which have led to 1,363 comments.

The site is powered by Sugar, DeTar and part-time employee Carl McLaren. McLaren is the only paid employee who works mostly on scanning, uploading and sending out material to and from the prisons.

The site relies on volunteers, and because it lacks funding, the demand outnumbers its resources.

“We have a wait list of 718 authors,” Sugar said.

“We accept new invitations every month, but the wait list gets refilled every month.”

Sugar said the site has crowd-sourced a lot of work to volunteers who transcribe posts, which helps with legibility and search engine functions.

He said if people in the Austin community want to get involved, they can leave comments on posts and also help transcribe entries.

If a community member knows someone in prison, he or she can sponsor that prisoner and have him or her send mail to their address and upload the blog entries on their behalf.

James Riddle, a former inmate and job developer at Bethel New Life, said the site is “definitely needed” in the community, but he said he wishes the site provided more information and resources to prisoners for when they return to the community.

As a former inmate, Riddle said he knows there is a “wealth of talent” inside prisons, but one drawback he says is computer illiteracy.

“A lot of people that are incarcerated aren’t computer savvy – even the family members,” he said. “If that becomes an outlet … then it becomes a form of favoritism so to speak, because everyone won’t have access to it.”

DeTar said once registered, inmates who want to write for the site are given an introductory packet that explains what blogging is as well as what’s appropriate and not appropriate for the site.

Sugar said the site is an outlet for people in prison who want to be writers and express themselves.

“It’s about having control over their own identity as they go through this transition,” he said.

The site has gained positive feedback from inmates who use it, DeTar said.

“We get thank you notes all the time and Christmas cards,” he said. We’ve had a tremendous positive response from folks. The fact that it’s free makes it a lot more accessible to folks.”

For more information on how to write for the site, click here.

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