View-Through is a collaboration between 110 students incarcerated in Florida Correctional Institutions in Miami-Dade County, the nonprofits O, Miami and Exchange for Change and artist Julia Weist. Additional support was provided by our project partners.
View-Through is a community-based initiative in the Miami area to adjust online search platforms to more prominently feature poetry written by incarcerated individuals. Our project utilizes synchronized, strategic internet searching to alter search predictions (the type-ahead suggestions that appear on sites such as Google). These predictions are generated by algorithms and are based in large part on search volume within a geographic region.
In March and early April 2017 thousands of participants in South Florida searched for the following six poems, which were published on the websites of partner organizations. The action created a search trend, resulting in a remapping of local search predictions for “Miami inmates”:
Miami inmates are sunbathing underwater
Miami inmates are what becomes of the chicken before I fry it up
Miami inmates are a device used to tell time
Miami inmates are light of the world, bone of men
Miami inmates are items of furniture for frightened people to lie down and rest upon
Miami inmates are believing in the unseen
Why offer new language?
The words we use reflect how we think—of ourselves as well as others. But when words are routinely used in certain contexts we may be immune to the impact they have. Such is the case with labels. Often we use labels to categorize those behind razor wire—prisoners, criminals, cons, inmates, felons—words that differentiate “them” from “us.” But one out of every 35 Americans has a family member or friend that has been in jail, prison, or on probation. It is no longer “them” but “we.” Labels kill creativity. They kill a conversation. They kill humanity. View-Through introduces new language to inspire a new way of thinking. Through poetry this project introduces metaphors and images that defy stereotypes and labels.
—Exchange for Change
Definitions of poetry are almost as numerous as poems. John Keats used a “lake” metaphor: you don’t dive into a lake to think about the lake, you dive in order to feel the sensation of water. Understanding is neither essential to poetry, nor perhaps even preferred, and yet it’s one of our most powerful tools for communicating personal experience. The language of incarceration in America is rich with data, terminology, and narrative, and bereft of poetry, an irony of sorts. If the goal of confinement is rehabilitation, how else can we determine the success of such a process except by the language of human experience itself? Poetry was the Turing Test before there was a computer. By putting poems into prisoner-related search engine results, we remind Miamians that there are humans behind the digital fences.
Why search engines?
A majority of American adults use the internet as their primary source of information for news, research and local topics. Increasingly, online platforms provide categorical language that shapes our perception, and yet, the internet is far from an objective space. Algorithmic bias—programmatic outcomes that reflect human prejudice—is widely recognized as a significant factor hindering social justice in the digital realm. Search trend algorithms fortify majority-rule associations. An analysis of the Google trend database shows that the search association between “Miami inmate” and “assault” has increased by 3,950% over the last five years, despite the fact that violent crime has decreased in Miami-Dade county by 3.5% during the same period.
A voice heard can become a wall broken.
Life is about perception. By creating a platform in which our voices can be heard we are essentially creating a platform through which we can change the perception of who a prisoner really is and what he/she is truly about. Being a part of View-Through is being a part of an effort to open the hearts, eyes & minds of those who are a part of the project, as well as those the project reaches. Collectively we can achieve success in our mission. If one person is moved to change their opinion, the project was a success. I was a part of its success.
I am not heard…I don’t exist…humans speak…animals don’t.
—G, the Seer
Prisoners often ask each other their opinion, but the free world never asks us anything.
To be human again, to be accepted, to have hope.