by Stephen Wilson & Michael Ness

‘The things prisoners wrote really jumped off the page.’ Illustration: Eva Bee https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/nov/10/writing-to-prisoners-unlocks-more-than-you-would-think

Information overload is truly a free-world problem. While people in free society must wade through various streams of news to decipher just what is really happening, prisoners are often left high, dry and uninformed. What is old news to free society is often breaking news to prisoners. Prison policies and procedures limit our access to knowledge and information. There are restrictions on what we can know and learn. These restrictions are barriers to prisoner organizing and reentry efforts.

Most prisoners find themselves housed in facilities built in rural, formerly farming communities. Hundreds of miles from home, we are unable to keep abreast of current events in and affecting our neighborhoods and cities. A recent survey of more than 8,000 prisoners by Slate and The Marshall Project found that most prisoners get their news via television, radio or newspaper. We don’t have internet access so the latest news is never just a few clicks away. Television and radio news coverage tends to be local so prisoners are unaware of what is happening in their hometowns and unfamiliar with the areas they are exiled to. This ignorance can be costly.

When news of COVID19 broke, we thought it was a virus that only impacted older, white people. The majority of us behind bars being people of color, most of us thought we had nothing to worry about regarding ourselves and our families. it wasn’t until months later that we learned the disproportionate impact the virus has on people of color. The prison didn’t provide us information. Neither did the local news.

Even today, deep into the pandemic, prisoners are not provided up to date information on the virus from the prison administration or local news. With many prisons across the country experiencing lockdowns, prisoners are left worried and afraid , not knowing what to do to protect themselves and their loved ones. While people in the free world can get information with a few clicks, prisoners don’t have that option and must depend upon supporters and allies to provide us public safety health information. And when they do, sometimes , the prison administration will not allow the materials inside.

But not only is ignorance costly, being informed is also. In Pennsylvania, where we are imprisoned, prisoners must pay $17 for cable access. Because we live in rural areas, not purchasing cable means our televisions, if we can afford to pay $200 to purchase one , will get no reception. And when they do, we only get local news and one cable new network: CNN. $17 may not seem like much to people in the free world, but when you earn only .19 an hour, that’s a lot of money.

If a prisoner cannot afford a television and cable, he or she must depend upon print news for information. But there are major obstacles to obtaining information through print publications. Quite often, they aren’t available. With so many media outlets focused on the internet, the number of print publications available to a prisoner, even at full price, has seriously declined. Many newspapers no longer deliver outside of their local regions.They figure people can access the news online. But not all people can. Prisoners depend upon print media to stay informed. As print publications decline so does prisoners’ access to information.

Under these conditions, how are prisoners to stay informed? The overwhelming majority of prisoners are poor people with very limited funds. We are kept in the dark regarding current events and entire topics that people in free society, even children, are well aware of. There are prisoners who are completely computer illiterate. They have been imprisoned for decades. They have never used email. They don’t know how to use a search engine to find anything. They have never used a cell phone. But, they are coming home. As is the majority of prisoners. We come home ignorant of the changes in society and our communities. Is there any wonder so many fail at reentry?

Studies have shown that prisoners who maintain strong familial and community ties are much more successful at reentry. These prisoners are kept informed of the changes in the world and their communities. They have knowledge which is power to succeed. But they couldn’t stay informed without help from friends, family and supporters.

We depend upon our allies to keep us connected to the world. Some prisoners experience culture shock upon release. The changes in the world are new and overwhelming to them. Being exiled for decades and kept in the dark about world events can have this effect upon a person. We need people to help us gain access to news and information that will aid our reentry into society. Supporting books through bars programs is a good way to help. Even more so, supporting the print publications that still are available, many at no or low-cost, to prisoners is a great way to help. Ultimately, we believe it is the departments of corrections’ that need to provide prisoners access to information and technology, especially regarding public health, that will assist them in successfully reentering society and transforming themselves while incarcerated. And we are coming home. We want to return to society informed and not in the dark. Supporting prisoners’ efforts to access news and information is a way to shine light into these dungeons.

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