Behind Bars

Behind Bars: The California Convict Cycle, a News 21 project, is a report on incarceration in California. It’s about as sprawling as the prison system it talks about. An introductory video runs through the broader themes addressed: Crime, Race, Control, Change, Life, Death. And while the themes are broad, the individual stories themselves are mostly personal takes on one aspect of an issue, such as one woman’s struggle to make a life for herself after being released, a prisoner serving a life sentence after his third strike, and six different women whose loved ones were murdered. This structure is similar to Soul Of Athens.

How It Works

Behind Bars is organized into five sections: Beyond the Bars, Dying Behind Bars, Desegregation, Surviving Loss, and History. Each section is made up of one to three individual stories. Each story makes use of different media: A story about a parolee includes a documentary-style video and a text story. A story about sick inmates is a photo essay with captions.

Navigation depends on the section. The desegregation section is an interactive map of the yard at Folsom State Prison. Clicking on a hot spot brings up a new segment about the divisions within the prison population such as being an “other”, prison rumours, and prison politics. Each segment consists of a short audio interview with a convict, a photo gallery, and a text transcript of the audio interview.

The history section follows the Burton Abbott case, a 50-year-old murder conviction that ended in the execution of Abbott. The user is invited to look through newspaper articles and photos from the time before submitting their own verdict on whether or not Abbot was guilty, innocent or it is impossible to say either way.

What Works, What Doesn’t

Because there are so many stories told in different ways using different forms of media, each part needs to be judged separately.

A story about the use of GPS ankle bracelets by law enforcement makes good use of both video and text. The video is more personal – it follows reporter Jude Joffe-Block after she is strapped with an ankle bracelet – while the text is more general – it covers the use of the technology across the state. But the two forms aren’t integrated together beyond the shared topic.

A story about a crack addict named Anthony Woods also uses video and text, but the more personal testimony of Woods on the video is repeated in the text, adding redundancy to the overall story.

More innovative in terms of design is the section on desegregation. The hot spot navigation embedded in the image of Folsom State Prison is an interesting way to access the different sections. The problem is that most of the hot spots seem to be placed in random locations across the yard that have no obvious connection to the topics. Because of this, the navigation doesn’t particularly add to the story in the same way that hot spot navigation does in other stories.

Overall, Behind Bars includes so much content that a larger narrative arc would be impossible to impose. What it loses in cohesiveness, it makes up for in scope.


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