Works of Justice Podcast: Temperature Check with Lawrence Bartley of The Marshall Project
Inside the information deserts of prison and jails, incarcerated people are often unable to locate facts-based news about both the outside world, and the changing conditions of their own lives.
On this episode, Lawrence Bartley, Director of News Inside—a free publication that curates news related directly to incarcerated lives from The Marshall Project—helps us understand the challenge of news and incarceration, shares about his own efforts to address the information divide, and underscores the importance of continuing to tell stories during this challenging time.
Read Lawrence’s essay, How 27 Years in Prison Prepared Me For Coronavirus, on The Marshall Project.
KATE CAMMELL: All right, thank you so much for joining us today, Lawrence.
LAWRENCE BARTLEY: You’re welcome. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
CAMMELL: Can you tell us just a little bit about yourself to start and how you made your way to The Marshall Project.
BARTLEY: My name is Lawrence Bartley, obviously. Unfortunately, I was incarcerated at the age of 17, and I did 27 years and two months. And, during my incarceration, I had ups and downs like everyone else. I always, from the first day I got in, I always had dreams of getting out. I knew getting out… I mean, I have to go before a parole board and going before the parole boy was like an arduous, stress-inducing task for me because I have become this new person, for what, about 20 something years?
But, going before the parole board, they had the person who I was when I committed the crime, and that’s who they were considering for release, as opposed to the person who I am now. I found myself trying to convince them that I’m not that old person anymore. And I went to the parole board a combined five times in seven months.
Usually a person who goes before the parole board four, five times, it takes 10 years because they have to reappear after every two years because they didn’t make it. But through a series of appeals and postponements, I went quite a few times. Going through the parole board so many times, it brings up like a wellspring of emotions because you’re trying to prove yourself. You don’t know if you’re going to make it. And people in the population who saw you as somebody who always done it right, a champion, or they said, “Yo, if Lawrence doesn’t make it, we’re not going to make it.” When I come back from the hearing, everybody asks me what happened and why I’m waiting.
Decisions are made five or 10 minutes after each person appears for the parole board, but it took me 12 to 14 days after every time I appeared to get my decision. I’m still in all those days wondering what’s going on. That feeling is being exacerbated by not only people incarcerated, but staff asking me, “did you make it?” and “what happened?” It was stressful.
In going through that process, a friend of mine had said that I should kind of write my experiences down. I told them this is not the time for me to write. My spirit is down. I’m fighting my life, and not only my life, but I’m fighting for the future of my children and my wife. They expected me to come home. So, [my friend] told me to do that, but I was against it at first. But I went into my cell one night and I started really to ponder it and I told myself that if I write it down, I won’t just be writing it down for me. I’ll be sacrificing the ill feelings. In doing it, it would be for the sake of someone else who’s not as articulate as me, and can’t put his or her thoughts down on paper because they may be going through the same thing. So I wrote it down.
Luckily, The Marshall Project published it. They published it in April, and I won my release, or I earned my release the following month. I was released in May. They called me into their offices to talk about the piece and talk about parole. From that meeting, they called me back again a few days later and asked me if I wanted to work for them.
And that’s how I got to The Marshall Project.
CAMMELL: Wow. That’s an amazing journey. It sounds like a lot of what you’re doing at News Inside was kind of inspired by this friend of yours that encouraged you to write it down. It sounds like a lot of what you’re doing now kind of goes back to that.
BARTLEY: Exactly. And that friend’s little bit of advice helped me launch a career, so I’m eternally grateful for that.
CAMMELL: That’s really neat. You’re the founder of News Inside, which is this free news resource that relates directly to incarcerated lives. Could you share a little bit about the journey of that project, like what your motivations were for beginning it and what challenges you faced and how you made it work throughout the process.
BARTLEY: Well, being I was fresh off of incarceration, as I explained, when I started working for The Marshall Project and I was trying to find my niche. Doing that, I was presented with this plethora of award-winning journalism that we produced, and the subject was criminal justice. And in my mind, it boggled me that people incarcerated are not privy to the work that we have, unless they have family members who would Google something on the internet and pull out a story, print it out and send it to him. And from experience, I know that’s hard to have someone to do. Asking them to look on, they come home from work, and I say “look up the Internet, find this, find this a story for me,” and “Oh, The Marshall Project? Can you print it out? And then go get an envelope, buy a stamp, put on a stamp, fold it up and mail it to me. Oh. And by the way, it can’t have more than five printed pages or it can’t get in because the facility rules won’t allow it.”
I knew that was tough for people, to get The Marshall Project work and work in general. You should know that when it comes to printed material, printing material in prison is hard to come by now. Just like people on the outside, you have your haves and the have nots in prison. The ‘haves’ have family members who will buy them magazine and newspaper subscriptions and buy them books and do the work, too. Mail it out and send it, send it to them. Well, the majority of the population don’t have that. Printed material can be tough to come by and the stuff that you get is not specifically tailored to your incarceration. I knew all of that going in and I say, “yo, what if there is a way that I can put The Marshall Project’s work in print and get it to them?”
I know that from my time in prison that there are screeners that screen material coming in. Even all the material I mentioned that comes in, it gets screened and if it falls on this, sort of like a scoring rubric, so that the certain things, like it can’t incite any riot situation, they can’t, have images of contraband, etc, etc… if it falls on that scoring rubric, then that material piece of printed material can’t get in. And it could be one fifth of that material that falls on that scoring rubric and all of it can’t get in. I knew that, and I knew that there were innocent publications that score on that scale, and we aren’t allowed into the facility.
So I said, I’ll figure that out, and put News Inside together, keeping in mind that scoring rubric. If I know the landmines to avoid, then I stand a good chance of getting them into prison and jails and they work.
CAMMELL: That’s so interesting. I had no idea that there was like a scoring metric to get information in there.
In thinking about that, what have the responses been, kind of just across the spectrum, like how are prison officials responding to it, and most importantly, how are incarcerated communities responding?
BARTLEY: I’ve learned to gain relationships with prison officials, and a lot of it is due to some of the interviews I have done. I try to be honest all the time. When explaining about how hard it is to get material into facilities, I always mentioned that I understand what prison officials are going through because they don’t want any rise to pop off, anything related to escape to be in a publication, or weapons, or something like that.
They want to keep everyone safe. I know that is their job, they’re just not intentionally trying to be evil, at least most of them. I know that. And when they hear me discuss those things, they kind of, they, they listen, they said, “okay, maybe give this guy a chance, because he does speak in a language that we kind of understand.”
What I also do is send the lead screeners in those facilities, I send them a PDF of each issue before it comes out. And I’ll ask them, I say, check it out, see if there’s anything you object to. And if you don’t object to it, let it in. And I know there’s nothing objectionable in it. And in doing that the screeners have become fond of the publication because you’re not just reading it to look for things to fall on that rubric. They really fall into the story. They start reading the material, the information. They say it’s so well written and they like it a lot and they become fans of it.
Unofficially, how many states, they tell me how they can wait for the next issue. And I’m like, okay, but it also has become dear to our readers who were intended for, incarcerated people. And some of them write me and I, and I’ve put excerpts from some of the letters that stand out to me, I put excerpts in each issue. And if you want, I can read two excerpts for you so you can hear for yourselves, the people who read them.
There’s two people, a person named Justin in Florida, he wrote, he says, “I’m writing to express my gratitude after reading the December issue of News Inside. I am 14 years in on a 30 year sentence. It’s great to hear progress towards the many problems with prison in general, but most of us stuck in the system there just isn’t much rehabilitation offered to occupy our time productively and news is hard to come by.” That was Justin in Florida.
There’s another guy named James in New York. It’s the one that’s kind of funny. He said *Audio cuts off for a few seconds* “With an satiable thirst for reading material. I dumped through the pile of old Sports Illustrated to come upon your publication. In truth, I was going to just pass it by when a yard bell rang signaling those of us not going to the yard to lock back in. I just had your publication out of fear of being locked in without any reading material. Admittedly, I was going to be slightly disappointed in another collection of poems and rambling, but boy was I pleasantly surprised. I found truthful articles packed full of valuable info. I admit to taking some notes before placing the magazine back on a table so someone else could get the benefit.
CAMMELL: Wow. This must be so gratifying to hear after, having to work so hard to get these inside.
BARTLEY: Absolutely. When people write to me, I can have a tough day explaining it to officials or, try to get it in and try to work the flow into design, because there’s a lot that goes into, putting it in the articles, the right ones, and photographs and getting the photographers paid. Photographers get none of the due credit. It can be a lot sometimes, but when I read these letters, they are so gratifying and they just charge me up to keep on going and they actually influence what I put in that future publications of News Inside because I’ll always listen to my readers.
CAMMELL: Yeah. It sounds like a really collaborative project, which is awesome.
CAMMELL: From what you’ve said, how hard it is to get this information inside prisons and jails, like we’ve been told by people we know on the inside that conspiracy theories often are a huge part of being in prison and that often they’ve been escalating in relationship to COVID-19.
How can incarcerated communities stay informed with fact-based news sources during this time if they’re not able to get information often?
BARTLEY: Well, I already explained to you how hard it is to get printed material inside, but it’s easier to watch a program on the news to stay informed.
The televisions are prevalent in almost every facility. One thing is to realize that prisons are usually located in remote areas and even jail, with the remoteness of prisons, that means that the news is localized. Same thing with jails. It’s all localized. It might be in a small town.
So the information, a person incarcerated, they get, it can be limited. And what I would suggest is that people who are incarcerated who has the access to family members, who have access to the Internet, who have access to different news programs, whether it’s CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, all these different news outlets, to ask them questions so they can get some of the more updated information.
And they can also express that to their neighbors inside of the facility, and I know that sometimes people can put their own spin on stuff that they see. What I tried to do when I was incarcerated, is if someone tells me something, I will remember it. I won’t act like it’s fact until I have it confirmed by someone else, by another guy. And most importantly, I try to make News Inside that credible news source. Right now, News Inside is the only publication that provides award-winning journalism on the criminal justice topic. It’s directly relevant to the lives of people who are incarcerated. When I put in articles about what’s going on in New York, in the criminal justice system regarding bail, we’ll conference around bail reform.
A person in Arkansas can read that and say, well, “wow, that’s what’s going on in New York, okay. So, that reminds me what’s going on in my state with bail a little bit,” or New York might be going a little bit further, maybe we could learn what’s going on in New York or the same thing in California, Houston. People learn what’s going on in different facilities, what’s going on in different states about criminal justice and it gives them ideas that they can use and it implies some that authenticity, that authenticity that they’ve been yearning for so long.
CAMMELL: Right. And how about, News Inside? How has the publication changed in response to COVID-19? What’s the impact been like?
BARTLEY: Well, on a negative side with this new social distancing rule, they are facing in the community, facilities structurally it is hard for them to social distance, but they’re trying different ways.
One of the ways is closing programs, closing libraries. The News Inside is usually distributed in libraries and the facilities on a lockdown where people can’t go to libraries, that affects the distribution of News Inside. In addition to that, officers are being affected with COVID-19 and a lot of them aren’t coming to work.
There might be an officer in a shipping and receiving area that receives News Inside, and then instructs someone from the library to come pick it up to take it there. Now this officer might have been doing this 10, 15 years receiving publication and sending it to the library so they know the process, they can do it without even thinking about it. But if that officer is sick and is away from his or her post, and then you have a new officer and it doesn’t know, then mistakes happen and publications can be sent back. Because of that, it has been hard to reach out to all my sources, all my areas where News Inside is being distributed and ask them if anything has changed. “Should I still send in a new publication,” and some are saying no because “we’re locking things down right now. Wait until this is over.” Some are saying, “yes, we need it right now. This is the time where we needed more than ever. Please send it along.”
But on a positive side, News Inside, the issue four was ready to go. It was ready to press. And then COVID-19 hit. I know how important COVID-19 and everything surrounding it is to people who are incarcerated because in prison it’s like a petri dish for this virus to spread. I changed a few things up. I put in COVID-19 relevant articles inside, as well as a new PSA that I won’t talk too much about, but it’s a PSA that’s helping people inside deal with it knowing that they have limitations on cleaning supplies, social distancing, and many of the safety practices that we have on the outside. I try to give them means to adapt to their circumstances and stay as healthy as possible. That’s what’s coming up.
CAMMELL: That sounds like a really interesting addition.
Speaking of adapting too, you kind of wrote something similar for The Marshall Project that just published this week, which was an article about an essay about how your 27 years in prison prepared you for this pandemic. You talked about how learning to adapt in prison and keeplock was similar to self isolation at your home now. And I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about what keep lock is for people that might not be familiar on the outside and why this moment feels similar to you.
BARTLEY: Well, keeplock is when a person does something wrong that doesn’t rise to the level of solitary confinement, but just like solitary, in keeplock a person is locked in one cell for 23 hours a day, only allowed out for one hour for recreation, but the difference between solitary confinement and keeplock is, in keeplock a person could keep all his or her property. If a facility allows a person to have a television, they can have a television, they can have their radio, all their photographs. They can have all their books, all their magazines, they can have their underwear and their socks. Their personal socks that their family members sent in from the outside. They can have all those amenities. But, a person cannot go anywhere. When, we call it, the gates crack open, when everyone is going to their programs, they go into the yard and they’re going to socialize, they’re going to watch television on the outside, they’re going to cook together, exercise together. A person in keeplock can’t do that. Just watch people walk by longingly wishing he or she can do the same thing.
So that’s how I sort of feel being on quarantine.
I look out my window now. I can’t be free. I don’t want to be out in the car right now with the COVID-19. I don’t want to catch it. I don’t want to be on the street. But I wish that the outside was normal again. The car is a symbolism for normalcy, and I wish that everything was back to normal where I can go to the supermarket without wearing a mask and gloves, and I could talk to people. I could go have meetings in person without worrying about bringing something back that may kill me and my family. Those are the things that it reminds me of.
But I definitely want to say that being in keeplock or being in solitary confinement is nothing like being quarantined from COVID-19. I won’t say nothing like—let me take that back. It’s not extreme. Being out here on quarantine is not as extreme as keeplock and solitary confinement. I have Netflix. I have my family. I have real food instead of prison food that I could eat. So I have space. I could go in my backyard, or I can go in my garden. I can listen to Instagram live. I could do all those things. It’s not as shocking to me as it was when I was first keeplocked.
And after being keeplocked numerous times, I learned to adapt with less and I’ve learned to survive so. Instead, like I explained in my piece, even when I was in solitary, which is a step further than keeplock, in order to get food, I would have to make like a kite on a line and send it down 70 feet away with a envelope of stamps on it, and a person would send another line to entangle that line and pull it in and take off the stamp, and then put on bread or fruit cups or matzo crackers on it. Then I will pull those items back and I would compile it, take the bread, mash the bread up with milk, turn it into dough, and put the fruit cups inside the mashed up bread to make a pie. That was like a gourmet dish for me, so thinking back on those times and what I had to resort to, I don’t have to resort to that now. And if my neighbor wants something from me, I’ll just prepare a rum cake, my wife and I, prepare a rum cake. I take it over to my neighbor, leaving in front of his house, ringing the doorbell. I’ll give him a call, text him “I left it right on your doorstep and you just open it and pull it in.”
You’re not pulling the line in, but he’s just pulling the plate there.
CAMMELL: Right? And like a lot of people who aren’t formerly incarcerated, have been taking to social media and comparing being quarantined in their homes to the feeling of being incarcerated. I wanted to ask, just in your opinion, if you think the comparisons are at all problematic, or if you think this is an opportunity where it can help people on the outside kind of reach new levels of empathy for incarcerated communities?
BARTLEY: Well, I don’t think it’s problematic in my opinion, but I think what we are going through in society is a taste of what people go through when they’re incarcerated. So all those feelings of panic and anxiety that people feel, you can multiply that by 50 as a person going through on keeplock or solitary confinement. And if you find that it moves you in a way to do something about what you think people are going through, then you have the jump off point for it. Use this as the springboard. So when someone who’s incarcerated, it might be a family member, a friend, or someone that you know, reaches out to you and says they’re on keeplock or solitary confinement, remember what you’re going through right now. And then you have assemblance of what their reality is.
CAMMELL: Yeah. I think this moment really is providing a really unique opportunity for building empathy in a different way.
And I wanted to pivot a little bit to you and ask you about just the value of storytelling in creating community when you were isolated from others, like when you were in keeplock or just in prison in general, and what story telling outlets you engaged with while you were incarcerated and what those opportunities offered you.
BARTLEY: *Audio cuts out for a few seconds* I remember being in solitary confinement and when you’re in solitary, you have to try anything, anything to cope. I mean, we’re playing little games which your neighbor, like an imaginary chess board that you move in on numbers, move one to 36. That person has the same pool of a number, they move your 1 to 36 and you say move 35 42 and they move 35 to 42 so this is a little chess game just by voice. And that’s an outlet for people.
But many others use storytelling. There are people who will get on, we call it the gate, because I think of a prison cell as the gate. You can’t see the person next to you. So you have to be on the gate to project your voice and then they can hear you. And a lot of times people tell stories on the gate. I must say that in some of the stories, a lot of people noticed the story was outright lies, but it’s cool. It’s entertaining and it helps us cope. People tell these elaborate grandiose stories, and it was based upon a tidbit of truth and exaggerated a bit. But it’s so cool. And sometimes you learn a lot from them and a lot of them sometimes are true and you learn a lot. It helps you maintain your homeostasis in a time where it’s tough.
When I was in population, which is not solitary confinement, or keeplock, I had the pleasure of taking part in a TEDx event in 2014, the first ever in the New York state prison. I told a story which is on TEDx, and going through that process of being on a time schedule in order to tell your story and have the proper elements in it and, and polish it and not double up on your words, be succinct and clear at the same time as being visceral and emotionally engaging. I think that was a great process for me to kind of build out my personality and who I was. At the same time, it was a great way for me to connect with my brothers who were incarcerated with me and the community at large. Storytelling brought all those parts together.
CAMMELL: Offering just the sense of connection, it sounds like.
BARTLEY: Right, right. And that’s sorta how I go about my writing a bit. If I’m telling the story, I try to connect it to the experiences that people are going through, even if they haven’t been incarcerated, we could find common ground, and so they can understand what I’m feeling and what I’m going through.
The story has a deeper meaning to them than if I was just writing it in prison jargon where people only in prison would understand.
CAMMELL: Right. In thinking about even outside of prisons, what is storytelling’s role in building this community now, in this moment of global isolation.
BARTLEY: I think right now, sometimes I see it on TV or it might be a commercial. When they tell these little stories, there might be little vignettes in which they go by and a narrator is telling you what’s going on, that “these healthcare workers who are on the front line fighting COVID-19.” I think that’s the most beautiful thing you can see on TV today. It takes me away from all the politics and the fighting, who’s right and who’s wrong. And it puts me in this space that we’re all in this together, and there’s people who are on the front lines working 12 hours a day trying to keep us all safe, and I tip my hat off to those people. I’m grateful for the outlets telling their stories, and I think for years to come we are going to see movies. We are going to see TV shows about COVID-19, from the people who are in their homes affected by it, to parents and children, to police officers that had to deal with it and contract it, to the health care workers who had to deal with it and fight against the virus, destroying the whole community, to people who are incarcerated who have to deal with it. You’re going to see so many different stories that come out that’s going to be visceral. I hope that people remember what we went through, remember that we are all in this together still, even if we pass this, we all are in this together.
CAMMELL: Yeah. I think that’s beautiful. I think you’re right that the message that we are all in this together is something that’s so important. I think you’re doing that with News Inside, to reminding people on the outside and incarcerated communities of the connection that we all have.
Thank you so much for sharing your time with us, in this already busy moment. I really appreciate it.
BARTLEY: You’re welcome. Thank you for having me. I truly appreciate everything that PEN does, and I like to be involved, so it’s cool.
CAMMELL:To read Lawrence’s personal essay and for more information on News Inside, visit themarshallproject.org. This podcast is part of our weekly Temperature Check series, which also includes original reportage by currently incarcerated writers and links to other journalism and advocacy efforts. Temperature Check can be found through our Works of Justice portal at pen.org/worksofjustice.
This episode was mixed by Robert Pollock with support from Elizabeth Fiore, researched and hosted by myself, Kate Cammell and produced by Kay-ts Mice-ner for PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program. Thanks for listening.