Bringing San Quentin to Social Media

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A program at the prison is bringing inmates' perspectives to Quora (and Twitter).

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Last Mile-participant Phil Phillips (background) working at San Quentin. Jon Snyder/Wired.com

San Quentin State Prison sits about 20 miles from San Francisco, closer than Palo Alto or Menlo Park. It's one of the most famous prisons in the world, its dark mystique reinforced by the 17 or so films set inside its walls.

Now, a new group has set up a program to connect a small group of prisoners to the world of social media. The Last Mile provides a mediated way for San Quentin inmates to blog, tweet, and -- most intriguingly -- answer questions on Quora.  They don't technically have access to the Internet, but their posts, tweets, and answers are posted via volunteers. For example, "The men are provided "Tweets Sheets" every week (140 character blocks) for them to write their tweets," the website notes.  Some of them have been in prison long enough that the tools they're using did not exist when they got locked up.

The social media focus is just one part of The Last Mile's program to connect inmates to the technology industry. They also teach technical skills and host discussion groups with people like Guy Kawasaki.

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Guy Kawasaki visiting The Last Mile participants.

Reading through the posts and tweets from the first last mile group -- David, James, JC, Kenyatta, and Phil -- is interesting, but not nearly as unexpected or enlightening as their answers on Quora.

On Twitter or Facebook or a blog, you have to follow people in order to get their perspectives. Quora doesn't work like that: People search by topic and see a variety of different people's responses all in the same place. That makes the site a particularly effective vehicle for sharing the perspectives of the inmates. Their work can actually show up right alongside people who are social media gurus and web developers and stay-at-home dads. You don't have to seek out prisoners  to find their thoughts mixed in among your cohort. And that's kind of a radical proposition in these days of remarkably homogeneity.

In some small way, putting inmates' thoughts into the Quora ecosystem is a way of reintegrating them into society, or at least including their perspectives. It's not going to fix the American penal system, but it might change some people's minds about who goes to prison. JC and Kenyatta's writing alone might accomplish that goal. Here's Kenyatta, who has been in prison for 18 years, on what "some aspects of incarceration that could not possibly be guessed by someone who hasn't experienced it":

One aspect of incarceration that couldn't be guessed is the degree to which our physical absence disrupts our interpersonal relationships. Prior to entering the prison system, I had a robust social network. I knew a lot of people and I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends, going to parties and getting involved in activities that most young people experience. At the time, I believed my relationships were stable and that somehow we'd always be connected. I thought I had a lot of real friends and people I could count on no matter what, but today I know differently... In my case, it felt that as my relationships deteriorated, so did my capacity to have meaning in the outside world.

Oftentimes the prisoners answer questions about prison, but where their contribution really shows is in responding to regular, old questions posted to the site. The realness of their responses to questions like, "If you could travel back in time and meet your 10-year-old self, what would you say?" is stunning. This is the beginning of JC's long-form response:

If I could go back in time and tell my ten year old self one thing, it would be, "I know that you feel responsible for what happened to your little sister, but it wasn't your fault. You can't hold yourself responsible for that---you're just a child yourself. You did the best that you could and knew how to protect and provide for her. Being angry at everyone and not trusting people isn't going to fix anything; in fact, it's only going to make your life worse. Your little sister needs you more than ever, so stop blaming yourself and be there for her like you've always been."

The Last Mile was founded by Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti. It's currently co-directed by Kathleen Jackson. If you want to get involved, you can contact Redlitz on Twitter.


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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