Tweet-a-Prisoner: Social Media and Prisoners

A friend of mine called Mark Alexander is in prison, wrongly convicted of murdering his father. I know Mark from my IBM days, which means our mutual friends include the wonderful Andy Stanford-Clark and Matt Whitehead.

He’s been in prison for quite some months (good lord, they went fast :/ ), and we’ve primarily been staying in touch via a service called Email a Prisoner. You type your letter into an online form, pay 30p and hit ‘send’. It gets printed in the prison in question, popped into an envelope and delivered to the prisoner, who of course can reply by snail mail.

(Andy and I have been discussing related issues of latency — for  example, hearing bad news by phone one day and receiving a happy letter from before that news the next. I believe he may write about this shortly.)

Email A Prisoner is a nice service, and has been complemented by us visiting Mark, and by phone calls between Mark and Andy (in which Andy often ends up relaying greetings!). Still, these communication mechanisms are a world away from the fast-paced world of social media, even if Email A Prisoner does make things easier: as an expat living in the Netherlands, I have much more contact with my online British friends than the offline ones.

So I was absolutely delighted when Andy and Matt implemented Tweet A Prisoner! As you might imagine, it rather does what it says on the tin — Mark has a Twitter account (tap_MA), and with a bit of technological and social jiggery-pokery is able to update it from prison. Andy’s written an excellent explanation of how the system works.

I wanted to share a few words about the relevance of this to my EngD, where I focused on the redesign of digital experiences for non-digital contexts. As Andy observes in his write-up, in this case we were forced to use non-digital media for parts of the system, yet unless you’re Matt (i.e. the ‘social component’ of the system — the person who is so kind as to close the loop and upload tweets written by Mark) that’s effectively invisible. If I didn’t know Mark’s situation (or read the content of his posts!), I could easily assume he just happens not to log into Twitter on a daily basis.

I’ve yet to chat with Mark about his personal point of view, but this certainly gives him a new way to interact with a bunch of people: he can stay in touch with friends and ex-colleagues, and share his experiences more widely. I’m intrigued as to how his visceral experience of Twitter is changed by this rather unusual set-up.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a dearth of work on prisoner engagement and social media, but I wonder if this isn’t a topic for conversation: social media can help prisoners reconnect with healthier environments. Would that now have an impact in areas such as mental health and rates of recidivism?

On a personal note, I was absolutely thrilled when I saw the first set of Mark’s tweets. Thank you Andy and Matt!

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