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Though we were the top winner in the inaugural Knight News Challenge back in 2007, MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media took as our mandate something rather “un-news”: Applying our tech expertise to information needs, broadly defined, rather than what we’d traditionally call news.

This focus has had a big impact on the kind of work we take on. It’s pushed us to identify key needs left unmet by traditional news outlets, even ones otherwise adjusting well to the transition online.

We’ve worked on urban signage, open-source grassroots mapping, natural gas drilling databases, and much else with big, ground-level application.

So while others are touting — rightly — how new technology has changed, say, midterm election coverage, the Center for Future Civic Media this week is touting the launch of a new project that helps prisoners blog.

Between the Bars

Between the Bars is being developed by MIT master’s student and Center researcher Charlie DeTar and Center fellow Benjamin Mako Hill. This project is a brilliant mix of high and low tech aimed at the 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons. Because prisoners have little or no access to the Internet, Between the Bars invites them to mail handwritten letters to a physical Between the Bars address. The letters are scanned, posted online, and transcribed by volunteers, and readers can leave comments, which are printed out and mailed back to the author.

The result is a public, searchable, “respondable” blog post, much like any other.

Charlie and the Center were drawn to this project because it meets an information need not addressed anywhere else, as he told WNYC’s “The Takeaway” last week:

Prisoners have no access to broadcast media, and especially no access to the Internet. Phone service costs in prison can be extortionate — often several dollars per minute. Our project aims to provide a gateway between the Internet and postal mail. This makes it available to nearly all prisoners.

This is essential, because we’re good at incarcerating people but bad at reintegrating them once their sentence is served:

We want to help give prisoners a voice to speak and express themselves beyond the criminal identity forced on them by a criminal system that by, policy, refers to inmates as “offenders.” We don’t believe that prisoners’ right to express themselves should end at the prison gate, and our projects aims to give them the tools to speak from inside. Second, we want to help humanize prisoners in the eyes of the public, who, due to the barriers created by imprisonment, often treat prisoners as outcasts and second-class citizens. Third, we want to help prisoners support “weak” social ties. Sociologists have shown that our networks of “acquaintances” provide critical help in tasks like finding jobs and form the basis of our social safety nets. While prisoners can use phone calls and letters to stay in contact with their closest friends and family members (strong ties), weak ties are often destroyed by incarceration. We hope that blogging can provide a means of maintaining these connections.

Charlie worked with MIT’s legal advisers and varied prison-related organizations to ensure little risk would come of the process, but we’re thrilled to say thus far participating bloggers are proving the Between the Bars system can work for them. If you happen to work with prisoners or advocacy organizations, get in touch with us at http://civic.mit.edu/contact and we’ll show you how you can help.

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