How to Run a Prison Blog

How to Run a Prison Blog
by Sue Basko, esq.

Back in 2009, I helped start a blog written by a man, Paul Modrowski, who is in Stateville, a maximum security prison south of Chicago,  Illinois.  There is a team of wonderful blog helpers.  The blog, Paul Modrowski: On the Inside, is now very well-established with a solid readership.  The blog is also apparently read by prison guards and management.   Over this time, Paul has become an excellent writer.   Paul has autism, so having a prison job would subject him to commotion that would unnerve him.  Writing the blog is his constructive activity. 

Paul Modrowski: On the Inside gives an important, detailed look at everyday life inside a hellish maximum security prison.  Stateville is a place of murderers and madmen, the cacophony of the towering roundhouse, the filth of cockroaches and bad plumbing.  There is the joy of birds nesting in the roundhouse, the delight of a meal of a small piece of fried chicken, a visit with loved ones in a crowded, noisy room.  There are hundreds of men kept for many years in tiny cages, a reality we try to push from our minds because it is too horrible.  This is the painstakingly detailed story of one of them.  I think it is a literary masterpiece of today.

Should you start a prison blog?  A prison blog requires a prisoner who wants to write on a regular basis and a team of helpers on the outside.  The team needs someone who can start, design, and manage a blog, someone who can type in entries, and someone who can manage comments and emails.  It is a fairly big commitment of time and work.   

 How does a prison blog work?  Most prisoners do not have access to the internet or to a computer or typewriter.   Therefore, the prisoner writes the blog entry on paper and mails it out to one of the blog team members.  One of the team types it up as a doc and then transfers it onto the blog.  Sometimes, pictures or videos are added to the blog post.  A Table of Contents entry is added.  When comments come in, they are printed up and mailed to the prisoner.  The prisoner writes back a response, which is posted on the blog.  Other jobs include promoting the blog by posting links.

What expenses are involved?  If you use a free blog site, that is best and will cut down on expenses.  The other expenses are paper and pen or pencils for the prisoner, and envelopes and stamps.  All this comes from the prison commissary.  The helpers also need internet access.  Assuming you have internet access, the cost is very low.

How to Get Started: Find a prisoner who wants to write a blog.  Gather a small team to assist.  Choose a blogging site.  I like Blogger.  Start a blog and pick a good name and URL.  The person’s name is a good choice.  Ask the prisoner what kind of design they would like.  Make a design that is easy to read, with a white or very light background and good-sized lettering in a traditional font.  Other than that, choose colors and a mood that suit the person.  Start an email account to go with the blog.

Who Should Be the Publisher: The prisoner should be the publisher.  You and the team cannot be responsible for what is written.  If the person typing up sees something that seems as if it should not be published, withhold it or discuss it.  Ultimately, responsibility must lie with the writer as publisher.  Everyone else is just a helper and the helpers come and go.   

Will What is Written Affect a Court Case?  It can.  Many lawyers will say not to write at all, or at least not to write about the court case, if the prisoner is pretrial.  It is probably best, in any situation, not to write about the court case.  However, prisoners love to write about their court cases.  If the prisoner has a lawyer, their directions should be followed.

Should the Prisoner’s Writing Be Edited?  At first, Paul’s writing had to be edited to fix sentence structure and misuse of words.  Then, we sent him a book on writing.  By using the book and writing many blog posts, he taught himself to be a very good writer.  I’d suggest you do the same.  Edit as much as is needed to make the blog readable, and try to use the experience to let the prisoner become a better writer.  If the person typing in the post thinks there is material that seems like it should not be published, they should withhold it and discuss with the prisoner.  Ultimately, the prisoner is the publisher of his or her own writing.      

How to Handle Comments:  A prison blog is bound to draw comments and emails.  If the comments or emails are abusive, there should be no response.  Be sure to set the Comments settings so that all comments are moderated.  If a comment is abusive or baiting or invasive, do not post it.  Comments are printed up and mailed to the prisoner, who mails back replies that are posted.  

Use your sense. Not every comment should be mailed to the prisoner,  because all mail in and out is read by prison staff. There are people who will write some pretty crazy, destructive, invasive, abusive, or bizarre comments and emails, and it is important to just keep those off the blog and out of the mail.  

Also, the people running the blog may have angry strangers and weirdos write mean or inappropriate things to them.  If you expect this, you won't be surprised when it happens.  

Emails and Feedback:  Be sure to provide an email address so anyone with feedback or concerns can write in. 

Suggested Topics for the Prisoner/ Blogger to Write About:    What the everyday schedule is at the prison, what food is served, what the prisoners do for enjoyment, reviews of books, TV shows, and movies, opinion pieces on current events in the news, descriptions of what is going on day to day, description of the medical service in the prison, telling about the interactions of the people in the prison, what is happening.    

Encouragement:  Sometimes, Paul has been discouraged about writing.  Then, when he hears how many readers he gets, he perks up.   When he found out the guards and staff read his blog, he was encouraged.  One guard told Paul, "You tell it like it really is."  

Privacy:  Paul has kept quiet with most other prisoners about writing the blog.  A few have found out from their relatives on the outside.  Paul has found that this level of privacy has enabled him to better continue his writing.