After 15 years in prison, I found myself at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Executive Program in Social Entrepreneurship. My admittance was validated when our first professor, Jennifer Aaker, author of "The Dragonfly Effect" (a seminal book about the ways to use social media to drive social change), held the Prison Scholar Fund up as an example of Best Practices in how we celebrated the Prison Scholars on our website. Professor Aaker discussed the importance of the Power of the Story, and how we successfully connected our clients to external supporters and stakeholders.
Encouraged by that recognition, when I came back, we renewed Prison Scholars' engagements. In addition to authoring blurbs, blogs, tweets, and personal anecdotes for the website and other material, we welcomed more of our Prison Scholars' voices. We were happy to provide a platform where a marginalized population could now speak to a global audience, empowered by the gift of education. It connects them, integrates them back into the social fabric, and encourages them to take their education seriously and with purpose.
As a young organization, we also wanted to connect with more people who were passionate about prisoner education and prison reform. We need to grow our community of supporters, in both volunteer power and financial contributions. Social media has been an outstanding way to do that.
Our social media strategy was to provide unique and relevant content to grow our base of social media followers, using Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin, which, in turn, may develop into additional volunteer engagements and contributions.
Prisoners are in prison, of course. But some of them can communicate electronically. There are e-messaging services from companies such as CorrLinks (that serves the Federal Bureau of Prisons) and JPay (that serves a number of state prisons), which allow inmates to send and receive e-messages. While these firms monetize the cost of sending email for a vulnerable population, they provide a platform enabling the delivery of messages that can be scrutinized by institutional authorities.
We invited the Prison Scholars to provide content, and it in flowed. We also provided the Prison Scholars with hashtags so they could identify and track their output. This is especially important for Robert Wood, one of our Prison Scholars and blogger, who aims to publish an anthology of the tweets he unleashed from prison, when he gets out in the near future.
The hashtags and a sample of tweets, @prisonscholars:
Bruce Bennett: #BB_PSF & #BLB_PSF
Support the PSF. Reduce recidivism. Send the private prison business model back to the immoral sludge wence it crawled! #BB_PSF
Jennifer Iredale: #JXI_PSF
My actions have not always brought me happiness, but there is no chance of happiness without taking action #JXI_PSF
Tim Pauley: #TP_PSF
When I got older I came to regret many things I did not do. Pursuing education as a young man was near the top of that list. #TP_PSF
Jeromy Willis: #JJW_PSF
Education will unlock doors after prison. Right now many doors are locked and only the guards can open them. Education is my key! #JJW_PSF
Tonya ("Ta") Wilson: #TW_PSF
Robert Wood: #RLW_PSF & RLW
Robert Wood's first tweet, on September 17th, 2015: "Education is the fuel that turns desperation into hope, hope into possibilities, and possibilities into an awakened mind... RLW."
And under his unique hashtag, on October 6th, 2015: "Raise the bar, raise your expectations, raise your standards, amaze yourself, through education. #RLW_PSF"
We doubled our followers and raised thousands of dollars for prisoner education, connecting with additional volunteers and donors.
We stumbled as well. Two Prison Scholars, who were supplying us with tweets, were thrown in segregation because prison administrators thought that the women had access to contraband cell phones. It took negotiations to get the women released, and to ensure that those who supply us with social media content won't face punishment. Now, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is on speed dial to ensure that other students' free speech rights aren't trammeled.
Jennifer, #JXI_PSF, and Tonya, #TW_PSF, weren't silenced:
Recently reminded: those suspected of wrongdoing often gets harsher treatment than those actually doing it. #TW_PSF
I will never give up. Keep pushin' forward even when I'm fed up. I strive to be better when I'm locked-up. #JXI_PSF
Ones' dreams should never be forced to cease or desist, but with the right education turned into a reality right where they exist. #JXI_PSF