Reaction to “Bringing San Quentin to Social Media”

Two weeks ago, I received a link to Alexis Madrigal’s  article titled “Bringing San Quentin to Social Media” from one of my colleagues with a note that read, “Read this yesterday on the train. Would love to hear your thoughts at some point!” Rather than limit the discussion to the two of us, I thought I would engage a larger audience and so I am sharing my thoughts here.

The Last Mile

Last Mile is a program co-founded by Chris Redlitz and Beverly Parenti intended to acquaint inmates with technology and related competencies “for eventual employment in a paid internship program within the Silicon Valley technology sector”. To accomplish this, inmates are taught technical skills, participate in discussion groups and use social media, well sort of. For more about visit

Before I continue, I want to applaud everyone involved in the Last Mile program for taking a step in the right direction and for the author of this article for writing about it.  As my colleague noted, “There needs to be more news stories on the experiences of prisoners coming out of prison and into the digital age.” My comments are intended to ensure that we do not think it is okay to stop with the level of access Last Mile has secured.

Interaction not Intermediary

By it’s very nature social media tools are meant to be interactive. This leads me to conclude that San Quentin has not been brought to social media, rather it has brought it to volunteers who act on behalf of the inmates. Needless to say, the mediators are not a suitable replacement for having the inmates interact directly with the social media tools within a networked environment.

In fact, having volunteers and not the inmates interact directly with twitter, the blog and Quora is in many ways a violation to the tenets–“interactive dialogue, the creation and exchange of user-generated content and creating media not for social “communication” but rather for social “interaction”–of social media.

As a result, some of the benefits and lessons to be learned through utilizing social media tools are lost. For example, the men complete “Tweet Sheets” that are collected every week and entered at a later date by a volunteer. Though it is an innovative idea, twitter is designed for “real-time” participation. Not delayed—“let me collect tweets and post them when I get to the office” interactions. Furthermore, twitter is used for much more than posting what seems to be mostly quotes/sayings. This fact can be lost in the current approach.

Holistic not Atomistic

The article states “they [Last Mile] also teach technical skills…” There is no doubt that technical skills are important. Unfortunately policies in and out of prison seem to focus mostly on technical aspects when providing training. However, technical skills are not enough to make meaningful use of social media and other digital tools. As a result it is imperative that technical skills are taught in context to something that is important to the individuals. For example, searching for jobs on Craigslist list, using Google’s advanced search tool to help locate local food banks that provide halal food.

Every Little Bit Counts — Literally!

Exposure equates to education and builds familiarity with the name and purpose of different digital based tools. This can cultivate the motivation necessary for incarcerated groups to want learn more after release. So, despite the externally imposed limitations which lead to some of Last Mile’s shortcomings, there is great value in the work they are doing. For example, although the questions probably preselected and aggregated by the volunteers, the fact that inmates craft responses that are posted is evidence that they are developing critical thinking skills.

Don’t Leave the Divided One’s Behind

Everyone, not just technologist must have a baseline level of skills in order to participate in today’s society. The fact that the program is catered towards people who are interested in entering the technology sector is concerning because it excludes many people from getting a chance to obtain the digital literacy skills. I believe a more useful approach/strategy would be to focus efforts on equipping all inmates with fundamental digital literacy skills. Doing so can help reverse the trend of a deepening divide as described by Jan van Dijk in his work titled, The Deepening Divide: Inequality in the Information Society.

I’ll close by stating what I said in the beginning. Last Mile is a step in the right direction. But by no means should it be where the work to prepare those incarcerated to participate in a networked society stop. Why? Because everyone needs the digital literacy skills—painter to programmer.

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