Family Life Behind Bars
Sandeep Junnarkar, Associate Professor, CUNY Graduate School of JournalismNew York, NY
CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
219 West 40th
New York, NY 10018
A CUNY Graduate School of Journalism professor and students have launched a site that allows users to share information and tell stories about the financial, social and emotional impact of incarceration on lives. The site posts content from “columnists” from the affected communities and from graduate students. Even folks who stumble across the site and want to share their own stories of the impact of incarceration can share their stories by joining the community to post their own photos, videos and audio. The site is updated several times a week.
Check back for future news and updates.
• September 2009
• November 2008
Engaging a Community that Isn’t Always Online
Family Life Behind Bars is a site designed to encourage people to share information and tell stories about the financial, social and emotional impact of the incarceration of family members on their lives.
The website’s community “is both geographical and one that shares a common experience regardless of geography,” says Sandeep Junnarkar, CUNY journalism professor and project director. “These are people who have a family member in prison.”
Yet while the site aims to be a place for people from across the country to talk about these issues, the reality is that “the community we tap is from NYC, usually Brooklyn and the Bronx.”
Our community “mostly does not have high speed Internet access at home.”
But it faces a not-totally-unheard-of problem for a community site trying to reach a group that is underserved by most other media. Many of the people Junnarkar and his student staff hope to reach don’t have high-speed Internet. Or any Internet at all.
So much of the summer was spent strategizing about how to bridge this digital divide, Junnarkar says.
“I am in the process of starting a new set of workshops this fall that will involve community members in creating content,” says Junnarkar. “I am trying to find older people who can dial in, using a telephone to leave a message, which can then be posted on our site.”
He says he has cultivated and worked with about eight community residents and hopes to turn them into regular contributors.
Currently, Family Life Behind Bars receives about 2,000 page views per month, with about 500 unique visitors per month.
Junnarkar says the site’s BlogTalk programming - a monthly web radio show that people can listen to over their phones or on the Internet - has been successful but in order for it to grow, some shoe-leather marketing will be needed. “We plan to hand out fliers to let people know about it rather than e-mail messages because the community does not have as much access to the Web.”
Family Life Behind Bars depends on interacting with the community it serves, but engaging people in those interactions isn’t always easy. The hardest thing has been to get people who find the site to leave comments and messages. The site often poses questions designed to encourage debate, but most people leave comments that avoid the question and instead write about how they liked the site. But again, some non-web ideas have helped the website.
“Nonetheless, our implementation of Skype voice message [visitors can use a regular phone to call a regular phone line] has resulted in several people calling in and leaving messages on our site,” he says. “This is yet another attempt to bridge the digital divide.”
Another growth pain has been interesting sponsors in supporting the site.
“Corporate sponsorship of this topic has been difficult because not too many companies want their brand associated with prison,” says Junnarkar. So he will try a new approach this year. This fall, he plans to work with business students at Baruch University to help train members of the community to do some hyperlocal ad sales.
- Tom Regan
Prison News 2.0
Family Life Behind Bars launched on Sept. 26, 2008 with a site that incorporates content from professional journalists and community collaborators. So far, three community columnists have been trained in video: Makeba Lavan, Davian Reynolds and Emani Davis. The goal is to get the work of one of them posted on the site each week.
Family Life Behind Bars is a news and social networking site for people whose lives have been affected by the incarceration of a family member. With more than two million Americans in prison, and many others with experience in the criminal justice system, this new site holds tremendous promise for capturing human stories and overcoming stigma.
Sandeep Junnarkar, the CUNY journalism professor who is shepherding the project, said most of his outreach has been to younger people, who seem especially interested in learning the tools of production.
“A lot of these young people have no one to guide them, so the training helps make them media literate and gives core skills that can be used for something positive. It resonates with them,” said Junnarkar. He added that he hopes to attract contributions from the diversity of people affected by imprisonment, such as a grandmother who has sons in prisons.
“As in any reporting project that involved communities who are stigmatized, I have had to build trust within the communities affected by incarceration of a family member,” said Junnarkar. He has attended meetings with the Osborne Association, which provides assistance to families of prisoners, and CASA NYC, which provides court-appointed special advocates for children in foster care.
From these connections, Junnarkar has gathered a team of columnists who will tell their own stories in their own words. He said they have provided helpful feedback on the project and recommended that the site aggregate news on prison issues from around the world which would be of great interest to that community.
“I’ve gotten e-mails from around the U.S., Reston, VA to Texas, inviting me to come do a workshop to teach people these tools,” said Junnarkar, with some surprise. “Because the U.S. has the biggest prison population in the world, this could become more of a national thing.” While chat forums exist for families of incarcerated people, Junnarkar’s project offers them journalistic training. “Once they finish a workshop, I give them a certificate.”
Family Life Behind Bars has also set up a ning, a social networking site. A month after launch, the ning has 16 members. Junnarkar is strategizing ways to boost that participation, and community involvement in general. He’s creating flyers for students and community columnists to hand out, inviting conversation, and has purchased a Skype phone number which will allow people to call in and leave voicemails about their lives and concerns. The professor’s work-study students have compiled a list of blogs on incarceration issue and are posting comments inviting conversation and links back to Family Life Behind Bars.
Junnarkar is thrilled with the tremendous interest from students at CUNY. He said 20 attended a meeting in September, which turned into a pitch session for multimedia stories for the site. Some CUNY faculty have agreed to allow their students to produce features for the site for class credit. Two graduate students working on their master’s degree capstones will also create content for the site.
Building relationships will be key to this project’s success. “I’m in the process of getting permission to go to Bedford Hills, a maximum security facility in New York that offers a college training program. It’s up to the warden to decide what kind of equipment we can bring in and which graduates of the program we can speak with,” said Junnarkar.
He said he is monitoring traffic on the site carefully and has noticed that the site is busier earlier in the week, so he’s rethinking his posting schedule.
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