Should prison inmates be permitted to edit Wikipedia?
I assisted a prison inmate in placing a request for Wikipedia edits (see this week's In the media). I want to explain what I did, what context this action has in Wikipedia culture, who made the edits, and my own motivation for being involved.
In the context of Wikipedia, nothing extraordinary happened with this, and the matter does not merit special attention. If this matter gets extra attention, then that is because someone chose to make it special among their other options. If anyone outside of Wikipedia wishes to look into Wikipedia culture, then the surprise in this incident might be that Wikipedia seeks to avoid discriminating against any person who follows Wikimedia community rules. I would not have thought to write about it except that a few people have contacted me about this, and I thought that it would be helpful to deconstruct the story to its basics if that would help anyone understand Wikipedia better and participate in constructive conversation.
When I processed the request, I did so casually without much thought and without expecting attention to the action. Any case can be made into a case study, and any case study can be generalized to its essential points. If there is an issue to discuss here, then I wish that it could be discussed outside the context of this particular inmate making the request, and outside the context of my responding to it. In summary, I performed the routine action of posting an editing request on Wikipedia on behalf of a person who asked that any Wikipedia volunteer assist them with this.
The request was in a volunteer queue that could have been answered by anyone, and mostly by chance that I was looking, I pulled the ticket for this request and managed it with some minutes of thought and labor. It is unusual or perhaps unprecedented on Wikipedia for an incarcerated person to request edits in Wikipedia, but I treated this request in the same way that I would treat any of the hundreds of other requests that come to Wikipedia in this task queue every week. In the narrative of Wikipedia, I hope that I did not do anything remarkable or surprising here except perhaps be standing for Wikipedia duty. Another person taking this ticket might have negotiated it to the same end, or any person with a conviction in their background and access to a computer might have posted their own request. In either of those cases, would we be asking the same question: should prison inmates be permitted to edit Wikipedia?
I reiterate that what actually happened here is quite ordinary: A person made a request on Wikipedia for article changes.
There is a process by means of which anyone may request edits to Wikipedia outside the website. This process is managed by the “Volunteer Response Team“, commonly called the OTRS team because of the "online ticket response system" software that the team uses to manage tasks. I volunteer for the OTRS team. There is nothing prestigious about managing OTRS tickets, but people who are granted the userright to do this are expected to know their way around the wikis and I fit that description. The major right granted is that whenever anyone emails “email@example.com”, those emails go to this volunteer team and not – as many people imagine – to paid staff of the Wikimedia Foundation or any other organization.
All sorts of people write to OTRS. People commonly request that someone edit Wikipedia on their behalf. While OTRS volunteers typically do not do Wikipedia editing on request, they might relay the request by posting in on Wikipedia’s boards and talk pages and asking if any other volunteer might like to fulfill it. In this way, the OTRS role means transcribing a request from email into Wikipedia somehow, so that people who are not engaging with the Wikipedia website can still have a presence on-wiki via email. This is rarely ideal. The standing request from the Wikipedia community is that people just go to Wikipedia and make their request directly, without a mediator.
There are cases when there is no alternative. Perhaps for whatever reason, a person cannot access Wikipedia, or they have an urgent request and are unable to learn Wikipedia well enough to do a task in a timely manner, or maybe they just felt like emailing despite Wikipedia telling them in every way that the normal and expected behavior is to engage within the website. It is not possible to email Facebook and ask any team to assist making a routine Facebook post, and not possible to email Twitter and ask them to publish a tweet in some general Twitter account, but just as a catch-all in Wikipedia if someone needs to communicate something they can take the extraordinary step of emailing and talking by email with whatever volunteer they get. No volunteer gets any customer service training and the entire team presents the face of the Wikimedia community however they feel like doing it, with the major restriction being that the OTRS team manages itself to an amorphous standard of quality.
In this context, I as an OTRS agent logged into the private queue for the volunteer response team and saw an OTRS ticket making a routine request. The request was for someone to edit the Wikipedia article which featured the requester as the subject. There were a few odd things about this request. The editing request would be mailed to me on paper. The request was from a public figure whose name I recognized. The most unusual thing was that the person making the request behaved as if they had read Wikipedia’s rules and had made an effort to follow them. I doubt that I see 1 in 100 of these requests from a person who even acknowledges the nature of Wikipedia, which is “Wikipedia is a summary of published sources. Information not backed by a reference can be removed. Information added to Wikipedia should be backed with a citation to the source from which it came.” I feel that the person making the request in this case made a properly formatted request.
I processed the request as I would any other and as I have many before. I posted the request to the appropriate discussion queue in Wikipedia, which is the talk page for the article on this person. By the procedures, this was a straightforward process. But should prison inmates be permitted to edit Wikipedia? Should there be a special rule which keeps certain people out of Wikipedia based on their off-wiki behavior? Perhaps, but in this case, I pass no judgement on the person making the request. They are incarcerated, which is where their society wants them to be, and they are free to write letters. I treated them as I would treat anyone else making a request.
Context in Wikimedia culture
As a Wikipedia reviewer, here are the concerns that came to my mind when I saw the ticket:
- Is the request formatted in the manner that Wikipedia’s bureaucracy can accept?
- This person is requesting edits to an article where they have a conflict of interest, which in this case is the article about themselves. The common view of conflict of interest editors in Wikipedia is that they are deranged. Is this request being made in a reasonable way?
- Is this a libel issue, or can this request be treated routinely?
- This person is a prison inmate. Does that mean that there is a safety concern to the Wikipedia community?
My answers to these questions are as follows:
- Yes, the request is good and in line with the bureaucracy.
- The request seemed neutral. It was clear enough and was formatted as a typical request. Most attempts by companies and individuals to edit articles about themselves are quite wild and rude, and many people avoid looking to those items because often there is no way to resolve them amiably.
- No, there is no libel complaint here, so this request can be treated as any other editing suggestion.
- I made the subjective judgement that there is no safety concern here.
Questions that did not come to my mind at the time are “Is this person who they say that they are?”, because Wikipedia editors do not typically take identity or credentials into account, or “Should I treat this person differently because they are a public figure?” because if identity is uncertain by default then it follows that individuals do not get treated differently when they use Wikipedia services.
The issue about safety concerns is that some people imagine that Wikipedia has a code of conduct that prohibits certain kinds of people from editing Wikipedia based on their conduct off-wiki. Wikipedia does not currently have a code of conduct. It will eventually. I have participated in the development of Wikimedia safety policies since 2012. Meta-Wiki is the place where the most abstract rules for the Wikimedia community are curated, and on the Meta-Wiki page “Code of conduct” I noted that there is no project-wide code of conduct and still none has been adopted. As with everything in wiki-world, rules are written by the community, but because no one in the world has been able to write constructive community rules (including big players with money like Facebook and Twitter), the Wikipedia community has not adopted any particular community expectations for morality and ethics. This is not to say that Wikipedia is without social expectations, or miscellaneous rules, because those things are there. The rules that exist just have not been codified into a manifesto that the community can use. I used the placeholder “codes of conduct” page to link to every other online community that I could find, and eventually, when there is a Wikipedia code of conduct, it will be at that page. I have proposed just copying all the existing draft codes one after the other in one mega-document, then parsing down, and calling that version 1.0. The lack of a code of conduct has not been a pressing issue yet, so since 2013 or so, we have just talked about adopting a code of conduct guide eventually.
I bring this up to say that there is no rule on Wikipedia which says, “If you have been convicted of a serious crime, then you are not allowed to participate in the Wikipedia community.” People ask whether that might be a rule someday, and there is no clear answer yet. If there were such a rule, then its intent would be to create barriers for safety between the Wikimedia community and certain people associated with risk or negativity. My thought is that such a rule is unlikely to be accepted in Wikipedia. One reason for in-wiki opposition to this idea is that there is a Wikipedia community value that contributors to Wikipedia should be judged by the quality of their editorial contributions, and not by their off-wiki life, to the extent that this is possible. There is a Wikipedia cultural value that there should be no hierarchy in the community and that there should be a culture of equality. There is no special rank or privilege awarded in Wikipedia to people with advanced education or experience, except to the extent that if they are talented and follow Wikipedia’s rules, then they might have more editorial effectiveness with the same effort as compared to someone with less talent and less willingness to follow Wikipedia’s rules. In the same way that there is no pressure in Wikipedia to assign ranks of privilege, the community avoids devising markers of humility to indicate lower classes like for example incarceration status. There is lore in the community of reference work developers that it is best to accept good contributions from any source. The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the world’s most respected English language dictionary, and popular narratives have recounted that convicted murderer W. C. Minor made essential contributions to the work while an inmate in prison and a sanitarium. To Wikipedians, this story teaches some openness to accepting ideas even from people at the bottom of society.
Right now, in April 2016, there is another cultural context to consider. Presently there is a discussion on Jimmy Wales' talk page about the weight that ought to be given to people with academic credentials. This is a discussion ongoing since 2006 with the Essjay controversy or even since 2001 at Wikipedia’s founding or before. The status quo is that the Wikipedia community does not check credentials or identity in any way, because the quality control process in Wikipedia requires that reviewers check the reliability of sources cited and the quality of research without regard for who submitted it. This is relevant to the inmate situation, because just as credentials do not grant favor, so would a negative record not by default be cause for in-community discrimination. Two weeks ago in the Signpost, there was a profile of a case in which a convicted sex offender was blocked from using Wikipedia. In that case, the context I read in the reporting is the Wikipedia community is safer with this person being prevented from engaging socially in the Wikimedia projects on the argument that the person is at high risk to offend again based on the past conviction. I do not know the facts of that case and I have hardly read the story, but I understand the sentiment. To the extent that the Wikimedia community defines any class of person as “dangerous”, I also want such people to be blocked from Wikipedia. If the Wikimedia community draws a line and says, “These sorts of people are not allowed”, then I would follow that rule.
As ongoing projects, Kiwix is an offline version of Wikipedia. Wikimedia Switzerland was able to provide this in some jails, as in that country, there is a philosophy that jails should encourage the reform of inmates to help with their rehabilitation back into society as people who ought to contribute constructively. There is a “Wikitherapy” project, and while it only targets people who are bound to their homes or hospitals, it could target any sort of incarcerated person. Wikitherapy’s team has stated no interest in convicted populations but I have watched the program and thought it was interesting for all kinds of people.
The editor in question
I know of the editor, Charles Watson. He has been in prison since 1969, so 47 years, and since age 24. He is remembered for his role in a high-profile murder case that is still popularly discussed in the United States and beyond. I studied this case in the context of my own spirituality and my sexuality.
The spiritual aspect was because of my interest in the advent of Indian culture to the Western world. Donovan introduced the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to The Beach Boys and The Beatles, who in turn popularized Indian culture in the Western world, heavily influencing the counterculture of the 1960s. Charles Manson, Watson’s colleague, had well-known social connections to the Beach Boys and used the Beatles in his philosophy. I read the popular book Helter Skelter to learn more.
Regarding sexuality – there was a time not long ago when the LGBT public figures were fewer. Director John Waters in 1981 wrote a book called Shock Value, and in the “All my trials” chapter he talks about being in the audience of the late 1960s Manson trial and about visiting Watson in prison regularly thereafter. Waters talked about Watson’s conversion to Christianity and acceptance of his crime and conviction. Waters’ presentation of Watson is that he is a quite ordinary person, except that he did a horrific crime, but in prison everyone is the same. I was moved at the time to think that anyone could care about what happens to strangers in prison. Because Waters cared, I felt like maybe I should care too, because Waters was an LGBT icon. I did not solicit this sort of case from anyone, but when I saw the ticket in the task queue, I did recognize the name. I never expected anyone to make anything of the processing of that ticket.
I am not sure what my motivation is or what my philosophical positions are, but I have worked and volunteered in criminal justice and have experience with the systems.
- When I was 19 I was arrested. The charge was one thing, but I was in rural Texas, and I feel that the best explanation of my arrest was that I appeared gay. Until 2003 it was illegal to be gay in the United States, and even in the LGBT community there used to be more negativity and fear of discrimination. When I was younger I sometimes felt like a criminal, and met other people who felt the same way. Now I think that even though there are different and serious pressures on LGBT people, feeling illegal is not among them for people in the Western world. I have had friends who were gay bashed by police. When gay bashing happens now, it is only because of discrimination, and not because of vigilante justice, so that is better. Homosexuality is still illegal in India for example, and my gay friends there tell stories like relics from my past.
- I have a relative who is in prison for gay bashing.
- I was an investigator for a public defender office
- I taught math and science to boys in jail through AmeriCorps
- I did fulfillment in a “books to prisoners” program
- I did clinical research with a demographic including many people in community sentencing after conviction
- I have a long history of involvement with HIV research, which includes not passing judgement about any medically significant behavior that anyone might do, regardless of legality.
- In college I lived in a ten bedroom house with all rooms individually rented. One new housemate was on parole. He had to ask everyone in the house – all strangers and mostly college age like him – for permission to move in. When his parole officer dropped in for visits, I was comfortable talking with her. This is what happens to people on parole – they go somewhere to live in the community, and either they are accepted or else they go elsewhere. I hardly interacted with this person, but it was still an experience of making a decision about whether to treat a convicted person in a different way.
I present these experiences to establish that I am a person who has some credibility for being thoughtful in making a decision about judging the safety of a request from an incarcerated person. None of these experiences are qualifications, but most people have no interaction with concepts of law and justice and I have had some. At different parts of my life I have wondered what it means to be an outcast, and to be outside the law. It is my own personal bias that I associate compassion for LGBT people with compassion generally. I cannot make an argument that compassion for one group of outcasts ought to be generalized to everyone, but for me personally, having some outsider experiences has made me try to be more sensitive to issues of fairness in the criminal justice system.
I want peace, justice, fairness, and compassion. If people are convicted of crimes then they do a service to society with their incarceration. Some people say that a prison sentence meets a debt to society, and some people say that even after prison convicted persons should experience additional consequences. I have no opinion except that somehow in the end I wish that everyone involved in a crime could get whatever acceptance and resolution is possible.
When I had the letters from Watson at home on my desk my boyfriend Fabian saw the envelopes and he thought they looked strange, and he asked me about them. I told him that I posted a message on Wikipedia from a prison inmate. He became upset, and asked why I would do a favor for a convicted person and empower them. I told him that I felt that people in prison, especially people in prison for decades, had low social status and that most people would consider incarceration to be among the most wretched and lowest sorts of lives. He had a close friend, Angel Melendez, with whom he spent a lot of time and who among many other adventures had officiated his marriage to his boyfriend of the time at an NYC Pride March. Angel was murdered, and the people convicted of the murder were released from prison after what some would call a short amount of time. Fabian was asking why I was helping bring comfort into the life of someone like the person who killed his friend.
I have no answer. I do not wish for any pass for anyone’s conviction, or softer sentencing or any particular criminal justice reform. I want fairness, even though I do not always know what that means. When I processed the Watson request, I wished for it to be taken for what it was – a Wikipedia request in a community that tries to treat everyone equally – and not for anyone to consider this case specifically any more deeply.
Lane Rasberry is the Wikipedian-in-Residence at Consumer Reports and has been a Wikipedia editor since 2008. This article originally appeared on the author's blog and is reprinted with his permission.
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