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March 4, 2021, 10:40 a.m.

The Marshall Project is experimenting with snail mail to reach incarcerated people

For the first time, the nonprofit newsroom is offering readers the opportunity to “mail this story to your loved one in prison.”

We all know the traditional social share buttons — email this, tweet that, etc. — but The Marshall Project has a new one at the top of their most recent article. Send this article to a loved one in prison via snail mail.

The criminal justice-focused newsroom has partnered with Ameelio, a nonproft taking on the for-profit prison communication racket, to provide the service. The Marshall Project will cover the cost of postage.

Digital newsrooms often have to experiment in order to reach audiences, especially those who may not have reliable internet access. The Marshall Project has partnered with publications like The New York Times, USA Today, NPR, and others to co-publish its stories and their print publication, News Inside, is distributed in hundreds of jails and prisons nationwide. The snail mail method makes special sense for the outlet, which has operated as a nonprofit since its founding in 2014, because the imprisoned people that often appear as subjects in their journalism tend to have restricted and/or prohibitively expensive access to the internet.

“One of the many punishments of incarceration is that information flow is severely impeded,” said Elan Kiderman, director of product at The Marshall Project. “People are charged exorbitant sums to send emails or make phone or video calls, often on proprietary platforms that are hard to use, and may find their communications censored.”

The partnership with Ameelio builds on the snail mail outreach already underway with News Inside. As an added bonus, the mailed article arrives marked as from a family member or friend. “The specifics of this particular experiment also mean that our journalism will come from a trusted source, a loved one outside of prison, which will hopefully make people all the more likely to engage,” Kiderman noted.

For “What People in Prison Need to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine,” staff writer Nicole Lewis led a project to survey 136 incarcerated people. Tow audience engagement fellow Ariel Goodman then answered their most commonly-asked questions about the vaccine using fact sheets from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and interviews with experts. Most of the questions mirror what people outside the prison system are asking (“Is the vaccine safe?” “Should I get the vaccine if I’ve already had Covid-19?”) but others address those inside the system directly (“Who gets the vaccine first in prison?”). The Marshall Project has also translated the piece into Spanish and readers can choose which version to send with Ameelio.

I had one lingering question about the experiment. Since vaccination policies vary wildly depending on the state and jurisdiction, the article by Goodman links to a list compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative so readers can search for relevant information. The Marshall Project said the mailed version will be a word-for-word copy of the article — minus the lede so it can fit on one double-sided sheet of paper. But those reading the mailed version of the article, of course, can’t click a link. Publishers thinking about testing something similar may want to rewrite or expand some portions to account for the inability to click through for more information that might be more specific to their situation.

This is The Marshall Project’s first partnership with Ameelio, but the outlet is considering partnering with them again in other contexts, including growing subscriptions to News Inside. Kiderman noted that the technology platform addresses one of the organization’s core commitments.

“We are experimenting with this particular technology and use case, but the larger theme of finding ways to bring our journalism to and engage with the people directly affected by the criminal justice system, especially people who are currently incarcerated, is a core mission and commitment of ours,” Kiderman said. “It’s too early to say what this experiment will lead to, but the more we can expand channels of communication, the more we can produce journalism that directly responds to the questions and needs of people inside, the more we can learn about injustices in prisons and jails. It’s a positive feedback loop.”

POSTED     March 4, 2021, 10:40 a.m.
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