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April 6, 2008

NYT Magazine notices web-based prison culture (and economics) version 2.0

0406medium Today's New York Times Magazine has this interesting piece, headlined "Soft Cell," that notices how a website has created a community for the family and friends of incarcerated persons.  Here are snippets from the piece:

Prison Talk, a big board with nearly 150,000 members and 2,500 regular readers a day ...caters to what turns out to be an underserved consumer niche: family and friends of the incarcerated. Prison inmates, whose Internet access is extremely limited, also turn up periodically, usually seeking pen pals through a third party.  The site, which costs nothing to join, was founded seven years ago and has drawn around 3.5 million messages, including poetry, small talk, business deals, memoirs, sermons, laments, photo albums and ideological screeds. Like the sprawling American prison system itself, the board has come to constitute a robust social reality — albeit one whose contents can’t be searched with Google or other engines, since Prison Talk is closed to the unregistered.

The board’s activity is propelled by the frustration and enterprise of lonelyhearts who crave contact while fighting boredom and despair. The postings, including those from former inmates, dramatize the widespread effects of imprisonment as vividly as any book since the 2000 exposé “Newjack,” Ted Conover’s chronicle of his year working as a corrections officer in Sing Sing, the maximum-security state prison in New York. And even Conover couldn’t offer the sheer volume of fine-grain logistical detail and jaw-dropping incongruities that surface on Prison Talk: topics on the site include marrying someone in prison; raising children whose parents are imprisoned; loving lifers; curing dry winter skin; preparing for executions; and having fun (jokey guards, nightly dance-offs) behind bars.

The posts themselves are by turns rueful, salacious, puzzled and pleading.... Prison Talk promises support without judgment, and in accordance with the site’s bylaws, uncooperative members are banned. (The site also counsels members to be circumspect with information that might be used against inmates or jeopardize their appeals.)

David Frisk, an aerial photographer and home-automation expert, started Prison Talk in 2001 to helped convicts’ loved ones navigate the prison system.  Frisk hatched his idea in a jail cell: he served time in the early ’90s in a medium-security federal prison for pawning a rifle while on probation for auto theft. Like anyone working online, he has since developed theories about revenue streams.  Small but constant banner ads, targeted for his audience, run along the top of Prison Talk.... Frisk, who is known on the site by his screen name, Fed-X, has been accused by detractors of exploiting a vulnerable and largely female membership by encouraging dependence; soliciting contributions as if the site were a charitable cause and not an ad-sponsored business; and promoting dodgy ventures like a print magazine that some subscribers say they never received...

Most Prison Talk members, however, seem fiercely loyal to him, and say they feel deeply beholden to Prison Talk itself. Many of them virtually live on the site, concluding their posts with tickers — countdown widgets, like the ones used on pregnancy and weight-loss boards — showing how much time is left in their chosen inmate’s sentence....

A small band of board activists, led in part by a Prison Talk member named Judy Wickliff, has recently used the site to plan a latter-day Boston Tea Party to protest the disenfranchisement of American prisoners. “No incarceration without representation” is their slogan. In July they plan to bombard legislators with mailed tea bags and a list of proposed reforms to the criminal-justice system.  It could be said that Prison Talk is steadily documenting and even galvanizing a subculture, if it weren’t for the February report from the Pew Center on the States that one in 99 people in America is now in prison. Let’s call it a culture, then.

The main website for Prison Talk is here, and I would be interested in reader reactions to both Prison Talk and to this NYTimes Magazine article about it. 

My first reaction is a bit of surprise that the Prison Talk board has "only" 150,000 members even though it has been around since 2001.  The number 150,000, which might seem pretty big, likely represents far less than 1% of the total population of Americans who have been incarcerated or have a family member or close friend who has been incarcerated since 2001.  Then again, since many criminal defendants and their friends and family are relatively poor, it is possible that only a limited percentage of the incarcerated and those around them have consistent access to a computer with an effective Internet connection.

April 6, 2008 at 02:30 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I'm a member of Prison Talk Online, and I wanted you to know that many members of that site are regular readers of this one. Prof. Berman is sen as a true guru there, and sections of postings here and articles referenced are regularly copy-pasted on PTO. My only complaint with the NYTimes article is that it doesn't give nearly enough credit to the lare amount of intelligent & informed discussion that occurs daily on PTO regarding sentencing issues. Much of that intelligence and information is originated, contradicted, and also confirmed by articles and ideas from this site. These two sites have much in common.

Posted by: John | Apr 7, 2008 8:54:49 AM

Many of our members at MyFelon.com are members at PTO. Our sites seem to compliment each other, as our members who still have loved ones incarcerated find a welcoming and like community at PTO. We have even looked to PTO for legal advice from members. All in all, PTO is a great place.

Posted by: Renny | Apr 7, 2008 3:15:53 PM

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