View-Through Project Aims to Get Poetry by Prisoners Into Google's Algorithm

An O, Miami project from 2016.
An O, Miami project from 2016.
Courtesy of O, Miami/Gesi Schilling
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In addition to hosting the city's irreverent, interactive poetry fest every April, the folks at O, Miami are engaged in various projects year-round. One such effort involves teaching poetry workshops at local detention centers.

It was out of this endeavor that the idea for View-Through was born. The poetry-by-prisoners project aims to change Google's algorithm so that the phrase "Miami inmates are..." is auto-filled by six poems written by local inmates. That way, when a random Google user types in that search phrase, the results offer an entirely different perspective on Miami's incarcerated population.

"The whole point of Google is what's important to people," explains P. Scott Cunningham, founder of O, Miami. "These people have voices that are normally not heard; we like to pretend they don't exist. But 95 percent of inmates in state prisons are going to get out eventually. They're a part of our society whether we want to acknowledge it or not."

The effort is a partnership among 110 residents of state correctional facilities in Miami-Dade County; O, Miami; Exchange for Change; and artist Julia Weist.

"We're trying to get websites to host those six terms, and when those terms are already hosted on sites, we're trying to get people to Google those terms," Cunningham says of how the project works. Twenty-five partner organizations have already agreed to host the poems. And basically, the more Googling, the better.

View-Through Project Aims to Get Poetry by Prisoners Into Google's AlgorithmEXPAND
Courtesy of Julia Weist

For those who want to participate, the six phrases are as follows:

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

Type the text of the poems into Google, and you help the View-Through effort.

In the words of one of the project's poets, Christopher Malec: "In today's world, the internet is largely responsible for influencing a vast majority of people's opinions. For those with a bad reputation already, the web usually doesn't do much to dispel the rumors or remove negative connotations. It's time to allow the people behind the fence into the discussion, and what better way to start than through the channel that reveals the human in everyone: poetry. It's time to change the overall perception about people who are incarcerated."

View-Through aims to encourage people to look beyond traditional, limiting labels such as "prisoner" and "inmate." When one of every 35 Americans has a family member or friend who's been locked up or on probation, incarceration becomes pretty personal.

"The people I met are undergoing a process of rehabilitation, and you'd be amazed to meet them," Cunningham says of his time with the participants. "Their lives are so carefully controlled in terms of contact with the outside world. They're not allowed to use the internet, and even if family members post on their behalf, they can get in trouble. It really means a lot to hear that people are reading their creative work."

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