Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
MIAMI — This article was written with students from three prisons in Miami-Dade county who are enrolled in writing classes offered by the nonprofit Exchange for Change. The text in italics was written by the students, including Alden Stephenson, Richardson Francois, Scott Hartman, Big Puppy, Allen L. Dorsey, Sr., Luis Aracena, Jeffrey S. Worley, Luis Hernandez, G the Seer, Brenda “Stormy” Dixon, Corey Jermain Still, John Barrett, Thant Lallamont, Paul Harris, The Fenix, Austin “Ice” Patrick, Radge Zap, Edwards A. Thomas, Brian Rudolph, Steve Wonder, Willie Collins, Jason Jewett, Zerrick Dixon, Rod, Ronald Barnett, among others. Individuals usually called “inmates” or “prisoners” are generally referred to here as “residents,” “individuals,” or “students.”
* * *
I am determined to get out and do positive things.
I have four kids and a loving wife I adore.
I am a human being!
Thanks to organizations such as the Prison Policy Initiative and the Brennan Center for Justice, the inequities of the United State criminal justice system are widely broadcast. You’ve seen the statistics: we house 5% of the world population but 25% of the world prison population (the numbers are closer to 4.4% and 22% — which you can check with a quick Google search).
People need to know what a waste this prison system is to society.
Yet there is one group whose voice is conspicuously absent from the conversation: the people currently serving prison sentences. Without them, our understanding of the criminal justice system is incomplete.
Not many are asking why it’s important that my voice be heard.
This April, the literary arts organization O, Miami, the prison-writing nonprofit Exchange for Change, and artist Julia Weist are using the internet to amplify the voices of 110 individuals in correctional institutions in Miami, so that when South Florida residents Google the term “Miami inmate,” they can find content produced by the inmates themselves — poetry, for example.
If I am not heard . . . I don’t exist.
All of the poets are students enrolled in writing courses at Exchange for Change, founded by writer Kathie Klarreich, and supported in part by O, Miami, which hosts a poetry festival each April that aims to bring a poem to every person in Miami — residents of correctional institutions included.
There are education and therapy aspects as well as the chance to say, “I am still human.” I’m still a fat kid inside, and it’s right up there with cake. Been in a lot of programs in these 30-plus years. They have helped me find a deeper meaning to my worth, in and out of these fences.
The project, called View-Through, aims to highlight and subvert the way prison populations are systematically isolated and effectively silenced by various institutional policies. For instance, with the exception of a few law clerks or residents in work release centers, the Florida Department of Corrections denies incarcerated individuals access to the Internet and email, regardless of their status or the length of their sentence.
We are more isolated in this time of universal interconnectedness than we were 20 years ago. People don’t write letters anymore. We prisoners need access to our families by way of media they actually use and are familiar with.
In prisons across the country, communication companies exploit incarcerated people and their families for profit. Almost immediately upon taking office this year, the Republican administration removed the cap on how much telephone companies can charge incarcerated individuals.
Learn of the truths about our judicial system. The injustice of it, the cruelness of it, the draconian element of it.
View-Through is a community operation. Since March, thousands of participants (mostly from South Florida, although searches have been performed from five continents) have been strategically searching the internet for six specific poems written by Exchange for Change students in Miami-Dade County prisons.
This is being taken seriously.
The massive search activity has created search trends, effectively publishing the poems within the autocompletes and suggestions of Google search engines. Each poem begins with a term that is used to refer to prison residents, like “Miami inmate.”
As for me, and most others, the chance of actually having a voice is great. Especially when a voice is something you don’t have.
I hope that I’m heard and felt.
Finally, by including search engine-optimized content with partner websites, View-Through also ensures that the Google searches lead to links relevant to the project, such as webpages with additional poetry by incarcerated individuals, well-informed articles about the prison crisis, and websites like Ladies Empowerment and Action Program, Emerge Miami, and Community Justice Project.
Communication and reasoning are what separate us from other animals. Best to listen to and read from the entire population.
Publishing the poems this way has several advantages. It has reach: the people searching for “Miami inmate” probably won’t be looking for poetry. It also happens fast: searchers won’t even have to click a link to see the poems pop up in auto-complete and in the suggested searches.
To make everyone a little more humane.
This manipulation also exposes the infrastructure and bias beneath the search platform. Although there’s a sheen of objectivity to a Google search, results are different depending on factors like your past searches, or recent searches in your geographical location.
I am not just my mistakes. I am also my victories and good deeds.
Along with the search result content most readily accessible, the language suggested by search platforms can either encourage or challenge assumptions and bias. When 90% of searchers don’t go past the first page of links, they’re not getting the full story.
Some of us are as bright, witty, and caring as those who are free.
More and more, we see that meaning is made, confirmed, or challenged online. Subtle interventions, like the ones performed by View-Through, show that a few thousand voices are enough to change the narrative.
Pretty liberating to know that my perspective will be made known and shared with others. We aren’t allowed many freedoms here, as I’m sure you know. So to tell my story — more than anything to have it heard — is pretty cool.
These shifts are taking place constantly on the internet, and sometimes we can’t measure them until they’ve passed. “View-through” is the technical term for when an internet user sees, but does not click an ad, but then searches for it later. (If the user clicks the ad, that’s called a “click-through.”) The view-through rate cannot be calculated when the impression is first made on a user, only after the fact, when they act on it.
Being that I’ve never been a part of something like this, it’s like, damn, I need to make this good.
The concept of “view-through” reminds me of Rebecca Solnit’s mushroom metaphor for activism in Hope in the Dark: there’s a network growing underground, and then, as if out of nowhere, the fruiting body pops up. It’s impossible to say when or where or how it originated. It came from everywhere.
I hope this helps people incarcerated.
This is also, subtly, how poetry works. It’s not a call to action. It, in the words of W.H. Auden, “makes nothing happen.” Instead, the repeated act of reading poetry, the practice of critical and creative thought, works slowly on a person. Then one day, perhaps, there’s a shift.
We share a different style and have many important things to say. We contribute a unique perspective.
One of the main goals of View-Through is to facilitate ways for those on the outside to empathize with those on the inside. Instead of arguing for empathy, poetry provides a specific, firsthand expression of what it is like to be imprisoned.
Who I am as a person, my personality.
There is no believing or not believing a poem. It is simply there, a direct line. At a time when facts seem more pliable than ever, poetry, which does not deal in fact, remains constant.
This is different because it gives me an individual voice whereas other projects gave me a group or a collective voice.
Currently, over 6 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of criminal disenfranchisement laws. More than 4.7 million of these citizens have left prison and are in their communities — working, raising families, and paying taxes — and yet cannot vote. People of color bear the brunt: over 1 in 13 black citizens of the United States are disenfranchised.
After 15 years, I’ll be “free.” I would like to be welcome in freedom. It concerns me very much I won’t be welcome. The thought of having the stigma of imprisonment after imprisonment is terrifying, depressing, hard to bear.
Coupled with gerrymandering, mass incarceration is the single greatest obstruction to democracy. Real democracy will have a chance only when the people with full rights mobilize on behalf of the people who have had theirs taken away.
Other projects, and there aren’t many, don’t engage with the free world. This is the primary difference. Prisoners often ask each other their opinion, but the free world never asks us anything.
When we think of and treat incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people as merely criminals, we limit the infinite positive ways they can exist, or influence our society for the better, the way all human beings can.
Prisoners have a high degree of aptitude and their suffering and pain actually translate to the highest form of poetry.
I am a caring, giving person, one who likes taking care of people. Being a caregiver comes naturally, I took care of my sick mother for eight years before her passing.
I still can do positive things.
The artist collaborating on View-Through, Julia Weist, created a similar project in 2015, in which the obscure word “parbunkells” was printed on a billboard in Queens, and Weist tracked the Google searches for the word. “Parbunkells” became a sort of obsession: no one knew why it was there or what it was. People made memes. They created websites. They made art and sold it online.
To find an exit for their loneliness.
To get these crazy ideas in ink.
Weist hopes that View-Through can create a similar effect.
There is a lot of talent in here.
The power of any art project is not just in the art itself.
I am part of a movement.
It’s also in the wave that comes after.