If you’re in South Florida and happen to Google “Miami inmates,” the platform’s autocomplete algorithm will fill in the rest of the sentence with dreamy, humorous one-line poems, like “Miami inmates are light of the world, bone of men” and “Miami inmates are what becomes of the chicken before I fry it up.”
It’s part of a project called View-Through, developed by the nonprofit Exchange for Change, literary organization O, Miami, and artist Julia Weist. Poetry might be the most magic of all art forms: it works subtly on the psyche, gently affecting the subconscious and making quiet changes in the reader. With View-Through, poetry is a tool for external change, too, a way to challenge bias, give voice to the voiceless, and place a marginalized community in the realm of imagination and poetics.
The goal of the project: when anyone searches “Miami inmates” on Google, the phrase will be autocompleted with poems written by 110 people incarcerated in Miami’s prison system.
Exchange for Change, founded by writer Kathie Klarreich, hosts daily writing classes at six South Florida correctional facilities. In partnership with O, Miami, they’ve developed a curriculum to help incarcerated students create the one-line poems. 650 poems were generated, and one poem per poet is featured on the project’s website. Six were chosen to be autocompletes:
Miami inmates are sunbathing underwater (Eduardo Martinez)
Miami inmates are what becomes of the chicken before I fry it up (Thant T. Lallamont)
Miami inmates are a device used to tell time (David Gouldbourne)
Miami inmates are items of furniture for frightened people to lie down and rest upon (Catherine LaFleur)
Miami inmates are believing in the unseen (Nancy De Nike)
Since the project’s launch in mid-March, there have been nearly 2,000 visits to the project’s official website from five continents, primarily the US and Florida specifically. The autofills began to occur after one day and 500 searches.
The poems are whimsical and biting and strangely ironic, a series of unusual self-reflections. While the internet can provide plenty of information about incarcerated individuals (it’s easy to Google a mugshot) and unsettling statistics about the prison system in totality (according to the ACLU, the US houses 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world prison population) inmates themselves are barred from getting online, therefore silenced and subverted. 95% of people in state prisons will eventually be released. They are past and future members of our community, forced to contend with systemic bias that will profoundly affect their lives.
This is why the results page is important. When the poems are searched via autocomplete, the Google returns include the project’s official website, articles about the prison industrial complex, and organizations designed to dismantle or heal it, like Emerge Miami, the Ladies Empowerment and Action Program, and the Community Justice Project. Prior to the project’s debut, Weist and the poets placed their poems in the comments section of several petitions—such as those for sentencing reform. This enables these petitions to turn up upon Googling the poetry, too, as seen on this Change.org petition to grant Florida inmates internet access.
To participate, try looking these poetic sentences up to help upend harmful, Googleable stereotypes.