Seattle-Area Youth Share Their Truths About Incarceration in Podcast
When we encounter stories about incarceration in popular media, the narratives are often misleading.
The stories are distorted by political motives or exaggerated for entertainment purposes, and they commonly lack the perspectives of the individuals whose experiences they are supposed to be about.
When the individuals experiencing incarceration are youth, this problem becomes even more acute. Between limited resources, privacy concerns, and access issues, this means that most stories about youth experiencing incarceration—in the rare instances that they do get told—end up being shaped by outsiders attempting to peer into opaque systems. But the media stories told by outsiders, even when accurate, are never fully authentic to an individual’s firsthand experiences.
Incarceration is multi-faceted, complex, and nuanced—and stories about it are best told by those who are experiencing it. In April 2021, seven teen boys in juvenile detention joined RadioActive Youth Media, the teen journalism program at KUOW Public Radio in Seattle, Washington, for a two-day virtual podcasting workshop. The teens produced podcast episodes about their unique experiences with incarceration.
I’m a graduate of RadioActive, and I worked as a peer mentor on this project—I’m only a few years older than the youth producers who made the podcasts. Working alongside my peers on this project solidified my understanding of two things:
First, they taught me, as a journalist, that no matter how good of a reporting job I or anyone else does, the highest fidelity of storytelling is found in stories told in the first person.
And second, they reminded me of how important it is to be a conscious and critical media consumer. To be a smart media consumer in today’s world requires an active effort to seek out and amplify stories by those often ignored by mainstream media. Stories, for example, like the ones produced in this RadioActive workshop.
The stories the teens produced cover a lot of ground, including their experiences observing Ramadan while incarcerated and learning to find joy while in jail. They shared everything from criticisms of the systems that surround them to lessons learned while playing basketball together. Amidst all that is discussed, the value of community and the importance of self-agency are returned to again and again.
On community, one of the youth, Milli*, tells us that instead of making people who have been incarcerated “feel ashamed of themselves” and “ashamed of the mistakes that they have made,” communities on the outside need to emphasize embracing “people with open arms.” Trilly* says that individual relationships are also essential: “A good friend is really going to be on your back telling you to do good and better yourself in life.” The desire for uplifting human connection and the disheartening nature of shame are such familiar experiences to all of us, and yet they are often left out of popular media’s narratives about incarceration. In sharing these personal stories, youth ask us to empathize with their experiences and bring our own compassion and support to our interactions with those around us.
Another topic the youth consistently return to is the importance of finding agency both within their personal lives and within the context of their incarceration. In one of the stories, they remind us that no one else is going to do the hard work of making change for us, rather “you got to change yourself.” They also discuss their desires to maintain a “growth mindset” when released, regardless of society’s stereotypes about those who have been incarcerated.
These youth provide actionable insight for listeners about their needs and the needs of other youth at risk of or experiencing incarceration. Often public officials make assumptions, forgetting to ask the youth themselves about the support and resources they desire. In these stories, the requests are concrete. Youth want community centers that serve as places of refuge for kids who lack safe, stable environments. They recognize the importance of mentors to guide them both personally and academically. They advocate for rehabilitation centers over incarceration where youth can pause, reflect, and find their footing during transitional periods of life.
These stories are rarely shared. Those of us who have never been incarcerated need to make more space for them, to listen more intently to these voices, and to respond with action of our own.
In preparing for and reflecting upon this workshop, RadioActive educators produced a tip sheet for facilitating media workshops with youth who are incarcerated. We hope these tips and resources might lead to the creation of more stories such as this one.
James Baldwin writes that “freedom is not something that anybody can be given; freedom is something people take and people are as free as they want to be.”
The youth hold onto their freedom—in their stories, in their courage, in their attitudes. As the title of this podcast reads, and as one youth so eloquently expressed, “they can never lock your mind up.”
* Pseudonyms are used to protect privacy.
Lila Shroff is a peer mentor for KUOW’s RadioActive Youth Media. She worked with the youth who told their stories for KUOW’s podcast titled “'They Can Never Lock Your Mind Up.' Three Stories From Juvenile Jail.” The podcast was a finalist in the 2022 Media for a Just Society Awards in the Media by a Person Who Is Incarcerated category.
This is the first in a series of blog posts written by Media for a Just Society Award finalists and winners. Check back often to read them all.