The Power of Story: From Hearing Incarcerated Voices To Changing The Justice System

Author: A. Hannah Spadafora


Stories move us as human beings. In the United States, over 2.3 million (2,300,000) people can tell detailed stories of state and private run correctional facilities. These people are forced to live in tiny cells or crammed into packed room within jails, prisons, and detention centers across the country. Some of them have done bad things. Some of them have made mistakes. Some have been victims of mistaken identity, or falsified circumstance. Regardless of the reasons people end up stuck behind bars, research on the consequences of prison and jail time for inmates is disheartening, tragic, and demands change.

During a two-year thesis project as a grad student (2013-2015) and a thirteen-month internship with The Incarcerated Voices Project (2014-2015), I listened to over a hundred of these first-hand stories shared via letters sent to the Incarcerated Voices Project as well as interviews I recruited thesis research participants for—a small chunk compared to the scope of the two million additional people enduring the brunt of stagnant practices of justice. My original proposal for a research project for my master degree thesis was more ambitious than time and access allowed the final project to be. I had hoped to be granted an outsiders observation of a correctional setting as a teacher or preferably research observer, but given my lowly grad student status, lack of clout, and lack of courage to purposefully be arrested for the project, I found obstacles every door I knocked on prior to finding the Incarcerated Voices Project. Short of this initial particularly lofty aim, decided on limited time, I had then proposed the more broad project idea of recruiting additional interview participants—law enforcement, staff, and other volunteers who worked within correctional facilities to gain an idea of how power, oversight, and accountability operate in places that hold vulnerable populations yet offer limited transparency—a way to get a well rounded glimpse into a purposefully hidden world, and to see how the vantage points of these three groups differed and overlapped on jail operations, experiences, and opinions on effective change and growth. My degree was in applied social/praxis-based anthropology, but I additionally consulted interdisciplinary scholarship that included history, criminal justice, philosophy, and political science.

This was of course too comprehensive of a project to undertake for a single person doing every step of the research project during a two year master's degree program—the audacious idealism of a novice just entering the field and underestimating the time deep diving research requires. In response to limitations faced, I thus trimmed it down to focus just on individuals recounting direct personal experiences of incarceration forced upon them for nonviolent offenses. Though some stories were silver lined with hope for change, too often these narratives showed unflattering instances that indicate research on rehabilitation, restoration, and redemption being curtailed or ignored in favor of falling back to failed and harmful retributive justice practices.

Hearing participant stories and seeing the emotion expressed during the retelling was an invaluable way to feel with participants the trials and triumphs of the events they have acted upon and endured alike. This work—interviewing and collecting survey data—was facilitated through direct word-of-mouth networking and advertisement recruitment. I conducted long interviews often lasting 60-90 minutes, transcribed them, coded the data, analyzed the patterns, and picked one pattern as a theme to investigate for my guiding thesis research question. My direct interviews were guided by thematic data gained during participation in a larger scale organized endeavor to bring these stories to the public ear—an internship I was grateful to secure with The Incarcerated Voices Project (Part of The Freeform Radio Initiative / Party 934 station), a non-profit radio program producing voice-actor led shows dictating verbatim letters received from individuals across the prison system.

The Incarcerated Voices Project put forth a great deal of effort to find, reach out to, and correspond with individuals imprisoned in the U.S. correctional system. At the time I volunteered, the project was run by 13 staff members who were mostly unpaid interns/volunteers. During this internship, I reviewed, rated, and replied to over one hundred letters from people reaching out for connection, eager to share their story with another person and the larger national community. This guided and added to the data I collected directly during my master’s thesis—all reflecting a diversity of stories from people stuck in the system.

Volunteer participants gracious enough to accept the project’s invitation answered prompts about their experiences and opinions—hand-written accounts we transcribed and typed accounts we polished in minor ways for grammar. These prompts inquired about incarceration experiences, offenses, struggles with health and addiction, connections to family and other social networks, as well as topics meant to engage writers' interests, hobbies, and expertise as witnesses to closed circuit penalizing institutions. Radio show feature decisions were decided by a ten point system based on level of detail included, a full response to all questions posed, inclusion of a personal story, a compelling narrative, a clear flow of story and intent of ideas, and a unique element to storytelling or in the narrative itself—with favor for particularly vivid, concrete illustrations of events and conditions of jailed life. Aside from correspondent replies to contributors to let them know that they were being heard, listened to, and that someone out there cared what they were going through, contributors are given tailored writing advice to try to help those without writing experience to grow in ways that allow stories to be coherent, encourage sensory connections, and provide detail; this helps furrow out solid pictures of 'insider' life. In addition to my own submission review and correspondence responsibilities, I also crafted ten contributor insight prompt suggestions for outreach letters, asking contributors about various dimensions of life ‘on the inside.’ Voice-over volunteers followed up with recorded readings of letters with inflection reflecting the experiences shared for the on-air program.

These requests for contributor stories were met with diverse responses, though kernels of similar grievances of excessive action or conditions of deprivation were voiced by many participants. During my time with this research project and internship, I heard stories from people whose social and family life were disrupted in devastating ways. In these situations, some people find their relationships inside and outside the correctional walls complicated, or find themselves cut off, marked by extended disconnection from warmth. Moreover, the psychologically damaging effects of isolation cells is worsened in cases where human rights protections are violated by the extended time in seclusion, literally precluding all human connection. Beyond this, my interviews and letter reviews alike showed that limitations on education, sanitation, health care, reading material, and opportunities for growth were significantly distressing to participants. For those who get out, difficulties are extended with the stigma of having a record, causing obstacles in both new relationships as well as barriers to employment following jail stints, all obstructing post release success.

From listening to these stories, as well as reading up on the theoretical underpinnings of various models of justice and cross cultural examinations of justice related practices across the globe, I further learned that some jails become “criminal universities”—an old term, sadly not outdated, representing these as places where the average person hardens, forced to survive in social and physical environments that sometimes lead to situational adaptations that actually increase their later difficulties in navigating non-prison worlds, and thus are counterproductive in failing to ‘correct’ behavior, motivation, or the circumstances that led most people to end up in jail to begin with. In this process, individuals already hardened by the realities of the streets—or hardened by/because of capitalism—are given more opportunity to learn new illicit skills, rather than to find more well-adapted ways to navigate social living.

Contributors additionally evaluatively compared private and state facilities, described possibilities and difficulties of friendship while incarcerated, included thoughts on accuracy of popular TV images of jails, reflected on substance abuse struggles, expressed self-aware feelings of unfairness at their incarceration, and divulged advice to invisible, hypothetical 'newbies' on prison survival regarding gangs, drugs, and sentencing, often representing wisdom that they wish they’d gotten when entering the system themselves and connected to personal stories of their own first week inside. This added to the trials faced in dealing with rights abuses experienced by some participants ranging from exposure to extremes of dangerous temperatures, disorienting and sleep disrupting lighting and scheduling practices, personal items gone missing, accountability practices skipped, and confrontations provoked by staff or other inmates to manipulate situations to provoke cause for punishment.

These stories serve as a backbone to promoting awareness of the human element of both crime and punishment; essentially, they offer the chance to mentally walk in another’s shoes, and to contemplate how we treat others. There are borders recognized between understanding, rules, boundaries—and persecution. These narratives raise questions of how we decide what constitutes deviant behavior, research what leads to it, and discern what constitutes cruel, unusual, and harmful response. It is in these stories that we are led to more informed policy and practice, where compassion is not left out for litigious adherence to detrimental practice nor for off-the-books prejudice seeping into (sometimes unconscious) snap judgments during practices of deterrence or punishment.

Beyond personal responses and tailored writing advice, the Incarcerated Voices Project conducted a number of activities aimed at sparking change in the system. This included a quarterly newsletter sent back into jails as well as outreach efforts to recruit audiences of both the public and policy makers to listen to the show—listeners with greater power in voting and legislation proposals and who may be swayed to take empathy into account when planning future justice based endeavors. Both this internal and external reach, for contributors and audiences, is necessary for a dialogue, as mediated as it might be due to the extreme seclusion of the incarcerated from the outside world and the distance embodied in paper exchanges—newsletters for letters—brought only to life by the requests, responses, and both volunteer and contributor written articles.

The newsletter offered reading material to our valued contributors, providing readers the chance to gain a greater sense of our organizational mission and giving volunteers an active role in carrying out at least a small sliver of the aims of that mission. Within the pages of this publication, interns and staff composed helpful and interesting articles on criminal justice law and court advice giving vital information to contributors connected back to their struggles in the system. Also featured were other creative/educational writings to help keep locked away individuals in the loop of occurrences happening outside disorienting repetitive time loops. Four pieces I wrote for the newsletter included one article on Buddhism and identity, two articles listing updates on contemporary event/science/media news, and a reflective piece on ethnography and art that encouraged contributors to use art to offer insight into the hidden world they occupy—essentially, to share interpretive analysis or alternative visions in a chance at self-representation and/or corrections in cases where media images of the ‘inside’ failed to encapsulate lived experience. The latter was partially inspired by the newsletter's short included section of contributor poetry,writing, and art.

In addition to these other components, during database maintenance of forty to a hundred-and-fifty records per week, I confirmed, updated, and added contributor information to sheets organized via GoogleDocs—gaining not unimpressive skill in navigating less-than-clear public web records of correctional facilities run by each state for details on contacted contributors (name, age, race, ID number, birthdate, incarceration date, release date, record of active convictions, correctional facility). This task was necessary to reach potential project contributors as well as to keep track of write-in regulars whom may have been released, transferred, or in unfortunate or sad circumstances, died while in custody since the last record update.

During this, I glimpsed telling patterns that warrant further research of how people are classified in the system. I detected when certain individuals had been moved from one facility to another, when release dates had changed, and collected information about the varying convictions that each person was charged for. It seemed from my initial cursory observations that certain crimes were more prevalently prosecuted varying by state, such as Kansas seeming to have more sex crimes listed than Florida, provoking the question as to whether there was a difference in incidences occurring or consequences being applied. Further, average sentences for certain crimes in states varied; in the limited records I observed at least, Florida had shorter sentences for drug offenses than murder (thankfully)—though this did not hold true equivalently for each state. Variations in state race classification systems were also noticeable. Kansas at the time only used three classifications, for white, black and American Indian/Alaska native—thereby putting people presumably of Latin and Asian descent, at random, into these other categories.

Within the shared experiences and state run database patterns alike, I noticed a habit of othering--an us and them mentality that set up contributors for shame and disconnection. Significantly, participants joined in, mirroring some acceptance of stigma and judgment. Though some internalized this, many also categorized other people in ways that stifled any association of being apart of the ‘them.’ This reflected the idea that some people deserve it, but not me.

The question of deserve is a funny one, however. It rests on a retributive system, not a rehabilitative or restorative one. If I learned anything through both my thesis and my participation with the IV Project, it’s that what society and individuals deserve is the chance for change; something sorely lacking in the practices we have built into our system. Initiatives aiming to bring human stories to the ears of those who might not ever hear, or listen to people they’ve been conditioned to disregard, to write off as beyond saving, to hold in disdain, and to hate—are essential to this change. We decide here what constitutes justice, fairness and compassion—for all, not just for the lucky, and not just for the privileged. There is no better place to start change than to redirect the focus from flawed humans—people who may have made mistakes—to the center of a flawed human system—a system that has made frequent mistakes, faltering in the promise of a safer and more just world.

In an era where negativity echoes off every airwave, empathy is our greatest tool for transforming our community practice. Cultivating empathy requires growing networks that rest on sharing, listening, and applying what we learn from each other to building new relationships to organize human activity in—economically, politically, and socially. There was nothing more clear during these studies than the lack of empathy and humanity that is built into our current system, even for non-violent, minor crimes committed, and even lasting for those with contrition, reform, and/or desire to live in stable ways without bothering anyone. These narratives showed human beings caught in harmful retributive practices of a social institution that ironically is intended to stand for individual and community safety. We can change the story only if we listen to these stories. Both individual research and organizational efforts are the keys to do just that.

This is a link to the Incarcerated Voices Project Facebook Page. The organization operated from 2012-2018, but it remains unclear if it is still in operation at the time of this publication (2019): A similar though presumed unrelated project still in operation exists here:

Additionally, the full thesis referenced in this article is here:

Hannah Spadafora is the founder and editor of The Conscious World, and a researcher currently focused on economic anthropology, public policy, and social change (see: The Meaningful Work Project.) She is trained as an applied social cultural anthropologist (M.A.) with a heavy background in social political philosophy (B.A.), comparative religion (B.A.), English (minor), psychology (minor), and journalism/mass media (HS), and has experience across the ground level of office, academic, publication, and service industry professions. Previous research projects have focused on justice and human rights, and music fandom. Former classes taught include introduction to anthropology's four subfields (biological, archaeological, social-cultural, linguistic) and student success/first year program classes; these featured themed content on history, performance, ethics, imperialism, biographies, media, and contemporary events. Manuscripts in the works include a fantasy/sci-fi influenced dystopian novel series, as well as non-fiction writing projects on Buddhist/anthropological ethics and public policy; visual anthropology and community performance; and a more informal funny/self-help centered book, How to Fail at Buddhism.  These are written around remote jobs that pay the most basic of bills, but not the soul. An Idealist to the end, clearly. 

Article: The Power of Story: From Hearing Incarcerated Voices To Changing The Justice System

Column: The Local Spotlight / The Research Corner

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