Technology ,

Facebook For Felons

Kamaal Bennett built a social platform for incarcerated gang leaders. It’s already changing how they see themselves, and the outside world.

Chris Ritter/BuzzFeed News

Early in 2014, Jacqueline Nugent came across an online profile written by Roderick Sutton, her ex-boyfriend and the father of her teenage daughter. Hosted on a website called Live From Lockdown, the profile featured much of the personal information we now regard as the web standard thanks to Facebook: a head shot, a hometown, a nickname, an institution, some groups, an inspirational quote. It also included a long “about me” section that ended with an old social media refrain: a bitter recrimination of an ex — Jacqueline.

I am the father of two queens (daughters). I lost total correspondence with one due to the fact her mother was responsible for my incarceration. She snithched [sic] to the F.B.I because she was scorned about my relationship and fathering a child with another female.

Nugent was shocked: It was the first time she'd heard anything from Sutton in eight years, since her testimony at a 2006 trial helped put him in federal prison for armed robbery. Sutton's Live From Lockdown profile gave all the details of that incarceration: His sentence (17 years), his time served (eight), his inmate number, and his institution (Allenwood, a medium security prison in Pennsylvania). Angered, Nugent responded to Sutton's post in the comments:

Take responsibility for you own actions Roderick and stop blaming me for your incarceration! You have learned nothing from your incarceration! Grow up! Honestly you don't deserve freedom! Your daughter wants nothing to do with you! When you were in the free world you didn't care about her so don't write this bullshit on here acting like your some saint that should be granted clemency!

If the shape of this confrontation — a digital reconnection, old grievances opened, an angry back-and-forth — feels familiar, its specifics are anything but: Live From Lockdown is the closest thing on the internet to a social network for federal inmates. Unlike the immediacy of the online networks that have come to dominate American life, Live From Lockdown might best be thought of as slow social, each post a several-stage process that is both ingenious and a reflection of the vast communication barrier between our silent incarcerated nation and our hyperconnected free one.

“Network” is something of a misnomer — federal prisoners have no direct internet access and so the “users” can't interact directly with each other — and the site's founder, Kamaal Bennett, calls it a “platform for social engagement.” But in its structure, its aesthetics, and its dissemination, Live From Lockdown looks and feels like any fledgling social network.

Except it's very small. Right now, Live From Lockdown is comprised of 28 profiles of male inmates in maximum-security federal prisons around America (some, like Sutton, have been moved from maximum- to medium-security facilities). They run the gamut of ages, ethnicities, offenses, affiliations, attitudes. Each prisoner has a simple profile — a picture and identifying information — on top of a feed of blog entries. These entries, which range from dozens of words to many hundreds, tackle subjects inside and outside the prison walls: corrections officers, special housing units, and gangs, but also faith, family, current events, and psychology. Save the focus on prison and gang culture, there isn't a huge difference between these posts and the kind of long bloggy posts, perhaps written by an eccentric relative or a friend from middle school, which show up in your Facebook feed. Many of the Live From Lockdown posts are uncommonly reflective, self-lacerating, clear-eyed, and eloquent. Some are moving.

Other websites that feature the unedited writing of prisoners exist, notably the Voices From Solitary project, by the anti-solitary-confinement advocacy group Solitary Watch, and Between the Bars, a blogging platform for people in prison that started at the MIT Center for Civic Media. But Live From Lockdown feels different: first, in its lack of an obviously stated advocacy or social justice position; second, in its attention-grabbing aesthetic and tone, from the giant, steel-colored header to the austere prison yard photos, to the rusty bevels that surround them; and third, in the composition of its “users,” who are mostly gang leaders in federal prison.

That's deliberate. Live's mission is “to utilize gang leadership as credible messengers to provide an unvarnished view of prison and the harsh reality facing gang members who are behind bars. A message delivered by those best equipped to deliver it to our youth in a way that will ensure the message is received, believed and heeded.” But the self-presentation of the inmates — as complex and weird and vain as anything you'd find on Facebook — makes it much more than Scared Straight.

The site is run entirely by Bennett, a 35-year-old New Jersey nonprofit executive. It's a part-time job but a painstaking process: Bennett receives profile information and blog entries via traditional mail and CorrLinks, the Federal Bureau of Prison's proprietary email system, then inputs them manually to the site. Bennett says he tries to add at least one new post a day; he also prints outs and mails the profiles and as many of the posts and comments as he can to the inmates, who have no other way of seeing them. In that sense, it's an online social network that seems to exist (for the ones who rely on it most) primarily offline.

Some of the posts — which are all embedded with social media sharing widgets — receive hundreds of Facebook likes and dozens of tweets. Others receive dozens of comments. The comments are frequently encouragement from people around the world, but sometimes they come from people who know the inmates quite well.

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