Journalism as Activism for Families Separated by Incarceration

After years writing technology articles for The New York Times and the Internet-only upstart, I felt constrained as a journalist. I yearned to rekindle the inspiration that drew me to the field: covering marginalized communities and exploring new ways to report and share their stories.

Then in 2007, I met Alison Coleman, a woman who had struggled to support her two children while her husband served a 25-years to life sentence in a New York state prison for petty theft under the harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws. She told me that for years she had had nowhere to turn for social or emotional help. Her parents only said, “We told you so” for marrying a black man. She kept to herself at church fearing her congregation would reject her family.

While statistics and political attitudes about incarceration rates in America are closely tracked, the human stories of prisoner families—like Ms. Coleman’s—are virtually unknown to mainstream Americans because this exploding yet unaccounted population is viewed with suspicion and rejected as guilty by association.

I decided to launch a media project to create a geographic and digital community for prisoner families even as social stigma and iron bars conspired to keep them fragmented and fearful.

I came at this as a journalist with a perspective–to show Americans the social cost of imprisonment beyond the political or “get tough on crime” perspective.

I explored and shaped the contours of crowdsourcing (having the community you cover help you cover themselves) and collaboration. Before it became standard practice, I trained people to produce video and audio columns about their experiences. One 22-year-old woman shot a powerful video about spending her first Mother’s Day with her mother outside of prison. As she prepares a special dinner, the mother-daughter banter slowly turns into a tense exchange about the daughter’s feelings of abandonment. The video captures a moment in the fragility of their relationship.

Another novel concept I used was to post a Skype phone number and asked people to leave voicemail with their questions and experiences. I posted these on the site as audio clips. We hear one woman, for example, describe her struggle to care for a loved one as he undergoes cancer treatment in prison. Years later, newsrooms began to use the same technique to engage their audiences.

In all I’ve published nearly 150 multimedia pieces, which when viewed as a whole reveal the financial, social and emotional toll on prisoner families like no other news coverage has.

I’ve produced live Web radio shows–with a community member as co-host–on topics as diverse as finding a job after incarceration and coping with separation during the holiday season when a family member is imprisoned. I’ve posted finely edited videos, each delving into a discrete corner of people’s experiences. In one video, for example, a 14-year-old boy describes the difficulty of having a “perfect moment” with his father when a guard is always standing a few feet away, and his need for a strong father-son bond.

The project’s most pivotal success, however, relied on a fundamental aspect of reporting: persuading sources who feared stigma and worse to speak publicly about their situation. “Our words have been distorted so many times to fit sensational or superficial pieces on TV and in newspapers,” Coleman, wrote about Family Life Behind Bars. “But we came to trust you because you let us share our voices with each other and the world.”

As the project gained momentum, its work resonated with the community. Coleman, who founded Prison Families of New York, a networking group in upstate New York, said the site brings “together a mosaic of voices that let us learn from each other’s challenges and small emotional victories.

~ This post was written by guest blogger Sandeep Junnarkar, Associate Professor, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @sandeep_NYC.