Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on the WaPo Labs blog on March 26, 2012. For more posts on the topic of social media, check out our Social Media section; for more posts from Hannah Rubenstein, click here.
San Quentin State Prison, located approximately 20 miles outside downtown San Francisco, is California’s oldest prison and one of the most notorious incarceration facilities in the world. In the hundred and sixty years since its opening, San Quentin has housed some of the nation’s most infamous criminals, been the setting for dozens of films, TV shows, and video games, and has been immortalized in song and print.
Although most people probably associate the storied prison with being “livin’ hell,” in fact, San Quentin is considered to be one of the most progressive prisons in the U.S. penal system. Inmate rehabilitation efforts include the only on-site college degree-granting program in California’s entire prison system, drama and arts education, and one of the few inmate-produced publications that exist worldwide.
The pilot program aims to “educate and train selected inmates in valuable skills that will translate into potential jobs in the technology sector.” There are currently five men enrolled in the initial six-month term, which offers training in five topic areas: The Evolving Digital Marketplace, Building a Knowledge Base, Practical Technology Training, Guest Advisors, and Building Your Dream Business.
“The public’s perception of prisoners in federal penitentiaries is glorified in a negative context by the media and television programs,” The Last Mile’s website explains. “There is no argument that federal prison is a tough and stressful environment, but there are many men in federal penitentiaries that given the right opportunity, can become very productive after their release… The goal of this program is to create a bridge between the penal system and the vibrant technology sector.”
One of the most interesting aspects of the rehabilitative program is the integration of social media outlets like Twitter into the inmates’ daily lives. Since the men aren’t granted direct access to the Internet, they are provided with “Tweets Sheets” every week (140-character blocks) on which they write their tweets. Volunteers collect and publish the tweets on the @thelastmilesq account. This provides “indirect participation in social media and chance for them to express themselves, and receive feedback,” according to the program site. It’s “social media from a distance.”
The @thelastmilesq tweets are a fascinating window onto the day-to-day thoughts and experiences of San Quentin’s inmates. The prisoners waver between hope and despair, alternately dreaming about the future and lamenting the mistakes of the past:
Kenyatta (#CKL) asks, “Where can a man go once he hits rock bottom? Are the stars outta his reach or just stepping stones 2 unlimited possibilities?” and asserts, “I am not defined by my mistakes, I am defined by whether or not I learned the lesson.”
And Shadeed (#SHA): “Thinkin bout how I got 2 this point. Came from the dirt & I emerged from it w/o a stain on my shirt. Gr8 metaphor – courtesy of JayZ.”
The men are reflective about their rehabilitation and the opportunities that programs like The Last Mile provide: “Prison is a coal mine. The Last Mile is in the process of producing life size diamonds,” says JC. And Phil: “San Quentin is like a community, not a prison. This type of environment makes u even more hungry 2 be on the outside and out; be an asset.”
Many of the inmates entered San Quentin before the digital revolution took place – before widespread adoption of the Internet, before Facebook and geo-tagging and Skype and YouTube; before instant connectivity. But when they are released from prison, they will be confronted with a world that is hyperlinked, where computer programs have become verbs of shared experience. The Last Mile exists to prepare them for this reality.
Inmate Phil sums it up simply and succinctly: “Had a great time as usual @ The Last Mile. Technology is everywhere! Talked about starting a blog. Thx to the Last Mile.”