For the prison project, inmates received a printout of the children's questions so that they could respond.­

iStockPhoto/Andrejs Zemdega

Prison Pen Pals: How the Prison Project Worked

­As an authority on educational telecommunications, Burrall had the advantage of being one of eight coordinators in the AT&T Learning Network, which consisted of 50,000 students in 22 foreign countries [source: Burrall]. This helped him orchestrate a system where he could communicate with other middle-school teachers from such places as Louisiana, Alaska and the Netherlands.

Meanwhile, Burrall partnered with the education department at the West Virginia State Penitentiary. There, several inmates volunteered to become "pen pals" (pun intended) with students. Of the twelve participants, six were "lifers," meaning they had been sentenced to life in prison. To kick things off, Burrall asked these inmates to assume pseudonyms (fake names) and write short biographies of themselves. Taking names from the J.R.R. Tolkien Lord of the Rings trilogy, such as "Frodo" and "Pippin," many listed their hobbies and described their families and what life was like before prison.

The inmates would submit their letters to the prison's electronic bulletin board, known as the "Play Pen." The educational director at the prison, who would read over them, then sent them to Burrall at Moundsville. Burrall would look them over before disseminating them to the appropriate schools.

Burrall assigned one inmate to each of the participating schools including his own, so that each class could serve as a consistent pen pal to a particular inmate. After reading the inmate's biography, the teacher helped students to come up with a set of 10 questions for their pen pal having to do with "society's problems." Students submitted these questions onto an electronic bulletin board (anonymously) under the teachers' supervision. They commonly asked about the inmate's relationship with his family or what life was like in prison. The inmates responded to these questions, and the kids were then allowed to ask more questions. This correspondence went on for about 15 weeks.

Although there was concern about the prisoners' responses, the inmates' answers were better than even Burrall hoped. Amazingly, Burrall asserts that neither he nor the prison's educational director ever needed to censor inappropriate material in the inmates' letters [source: Burrall]. Instead, the prisoners were quick to warn the students about how easy it is to go down the wrong path and described the despair they felt in prison. Burrall claims that the "virtual bond" formed during the correspondence challenged the students' misconceptions [source: Burrall]. Prisoners also showed their appreciation of the project, claiming that it helped them to gain personal insight [source: Burrall].

After a few successful semesters of working with many different schools, the project ended -- partly because the prison closed, and partly because Burrall was chosen as IBM's National Teacher of the Year for Technology and as a result of this honor took several years to tour the country and give talks about the project to other educators. The project has even been given the distinction of being archived in the Smithsonian.

Since then, some educators have been able to replicate the project, such as one known as the Harlem Valley Project in New York, which also ran for a few semesters.

For more information on prison life and telecommunications technology, explore the links on the next page.