Fred I. Williams
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Prison and
Universal Access

Rev. Fred I. Williams is Chief Information Officer and Prison Project coordinator for the National Trust for the Development of African-American Men. Former President, Board of Directors, of the National Capital Area Public Access Network, Fred provides telecommunications consulting services and technology support to a variety of national nonprofits, coalitions, interfaith partnerships, and advocacy groups. For more information about the National Trust, see

Rev. Fred I. Williams

Sunday dinner, Thanksgiving Thursday, and Norman Rockwell. A wide-eye freckled-faced boy watches as Grandfather slices a piece of Americana to be served to all. Loving faces, slowly rising expectation of the coming holiday season. We know who Santa Claus really is, don't we? Everybody lives as we do, don't they? A family is made up of Mommy and Daddy and baby makes three, right? Bad people don't have families, do they? And if they do, why should we care? Don't do the crime if you can't do the time, right?

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Rev. Fred Williams at the 1997 CTCNet All-Affiliates Conference in Pittsburgh.
Much to-do and media attention has been focused on the little boy or girl from the "undeserved" community, sitting behind a big computer screen, glancing at their first view of the Internet. From grant opportunities to major partnerships with the big technology giants, the transformation from hopelessness to hopeful is occurring. Yet the cries of the victims resonate, calling out for vindication. How long, how long before the wicked are silenced and the poor receive rest from their woes. Strike three, you're out, mandatory minimum sentences, lack of economic development opportunities, lack of vision -- and the people perish. Ignorance takes another life into its grasp and chokes away the ability to dream and breath. Who amongst us will fill in the breach in the hedge?

The publicly funded communications infrastructure serves the needs of the private sector far more than that of the public one which paid for its creation. Especially for kids like Keisha, a resident of New York City, whose parents patiently wait for her monthly visit.

The typical bus ride on visiting day takes eight hours. Oftentimes family members gather at 5:00 am to wait in line to visit with a loved one. Life is hard for fathers, mothers and children. For a bright, unassuming nine year-old like Keisha, it's typical to watch sitcom families as they sit down at the dining room table, breaking bread together, discussing the week's events. Not so for Keisha. Yet her innocence remains intact, a child longing to visit her father, who is confined as a maximum custody prisoner at Green Haven Correctional facility, upstate New York. Hard times, heart choices.

During this particular visit, however, life seeks to imitate art. Rameek, a prisoner and member of the National Trust's "From a Liability to an Asset" Human Resource development group, poses the following scenario to Dr. Garry A. Mendez, Jr., the Trust's Executive Director: "During my daughter's recent visit, Keisha said to me, 'Daddy, I'll be glad when me, you and mommy can sit down and have dinner together like all the other families do!"

Rameek pauses to gather himself and asks Dr. Mendez, "How can I tell my daughter that her simple wish will never, never happen in her lifetime. With what words do I lovingly yet honestly tell her the truth? You see, both her mother and myself are serving life sentences, with no chance for parole. How do you go about the business of breaking a little girl's heart and shattering her hopes for the future? How can I, as a parent, assist in the raising of my children, when I physically cannot be there for her? There's not enough time during our two hour visit to correct a month's worth of homework, listen to her stories or taste the new recipe she experimented with."

Even as the Internet offers unique opportunities for economic empowerment, we seek to utilize the tools of the trade to open opportunities for effective communications between the incarcerated and their families. Many of the Trust fellows have Master's degrees and assist by offering on-line tutoring from the correction facility to a local community center in the area where the inmates' children live. Resurrection group mentors correct and encourage, reach out and give back in positive ways to the communities from which they came, and with corporate and individual donations, assist in providing access to a variety of support services for the children like Kiesha.

The National Trust for the Development of African American Men's Prison Project supports families of inmates involved with their human resource development training, and provides computers for training labs in prisons which are used by guards and inmates alike. Future projects include video e-mail, on-line homework and online visitation via DSL services through community centers in the cities where the families reside.