Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tentative Launch Date: April 1

Today we mailed out 394 letters to former and future bloggers in prison whom we'd been introduced to over the last 6 months, inviting them to start writing for us again.  This is Between the Bars' largest mailing yet - and it was a great learning experience.  We decided to make use of MIT's Mail Services and their fancy machines for folding and stuffing the envelopes - and also learned, the hard way, that they required that the 2000 pages we provided for the mailing be uncollated. :)  As we grow, we may make heavier use of the mail stuffing robots to handle our outgoing correspondence.

With that out of the way, we now have a tentative date for relaunching Between the Bars:  April 1!  As soon as we start getting mail and blog posts back from people in prison, we'll bring the site online again.

We're also taking the opportunity to do some upgrades to the software.  One major new feature is support for profile pages.  Profiles on Between the Bars will be a single 8.5x11 scanned page that can include any photos, drawings, addresses, or any other info the blogger wants to include, and can also be transcribed like blog posts.  Unlike blog posts, they won't enter the blog roll or RSS feeds, and will remain in place until the author changes them.

What Happened?

So why was Between the Bars offline for three months?

Between the Bars was originally conceived as a service project. Our primary aim has always been to provide a valuable communication service to the incarcerated.  Since the service was started by a couple of PhD students who have things like studies and research on the brain, we also designed a research protocol that would allow us to reflect on how people used the service, to use those results to improve the service, and to tell other researchers in the academic community about the results.  In retrospect, this wasn't the best idea.

There are important, worthwhile, and necessary regulations that exist for any research with humans, especially if it involves prisoners - this is due to a regrettable history of people in universities using prisoners as convenient pincushions for their experiments. Before starting Between the Bars, we completed a full review by the auspiciously named MIT Committee for the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects (MIT's Institutional Review Board) to ensure that we would be protecting prisoners' interests at all times, and operating fully within the law.  The process was valuable to us: it helped us to sharpen our approach to ensure that we wouldn't be creating an attractive nuisance through which people might get in or cause trouble.

Despite having completed a full review, in mid-December 2010, we became aware of regulations that might impact the research protocol. At MIT's request, to ensure that we remained within the law, we suspended the service in order to re-evaluate, and began a lengthy series of meetings with various groups in the MIT administration to determine the project's fate.  In the end, we concluded that it was not feasible to continue the project with any research component without drastically reducing our scope, and letting many writers down.  The long down-time was necessary in order for us to reach the needed agreements with MIT, to make appropriate changes to the service, and to ensure that we could continue in full compliance with laws and regulations.

So really, we're back to what we started with in the beginning, and operating in a much more suitable fashion: Between the Bars is a service project through and through, and no longer has any research component.  We're operating with full support of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media and the MIT Public Service Center.  We believe that this has left us better able to grow and adapt, and better situated us to fight the long fight of challenging injustice in the prison system through truth and humanity.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Restarting Service

After what seems like an eternity, we're delighted to report that the long road to restarting the website has crossed its final administrative hurdle! Between the Bars will be restarting service (with some changes) in the next few weeks. We're frantically working right now on making the necessary changes to our process and software, as well as catching up on the last few months of stalled correspondence.

At this time we're not yet set up to accept new writer registrations or blog posts, but we'll be there soon.

More to come (including a full explanation of what happened)!

We're also working on building a base of volunteers in the Boston/Cambridge, MA area to help with Between the Bars. If you're interested in joining us, please contact volunteer@betweenthebars.org.

If you'd like to be notified in advance of our re-launch and kept up-to-date, susbscribe to our mailing list!