Photo courtesy of Adam Sherlock
Behind the scenes of “Sending Messages,” the award-winning monthly podcast produced by incarcerated youth.
Music Credit: Excerpts of guitar music composed and performed by Jorge F. Hernández, used courtesy of Mr. Hernández.
Alias: Well, I'm stuck in this cell once again and all I have to keep me company is these four walls, a bed, a toilet and a sink that are connected. This is my new home for the next part of my life. Well, I'm sitting here talking to nobody and wondering if the walls are listening. I wonder if the walls of this cell could talk, what do you think they would say?
Jo Reed: That was Alias, a boy who's incarcerated in a secure facility. His piece was part of the podcast Sending Messages and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.
Sending Messages is the only show of its kind, a podcast produced entirely by students incarcerated at a secure care youth corrections facility. Begun in 2010 in Salt Lake City, the students record, edit and produce their own radio show. Using aliases rather than their own names for legal reasons, the students write and perform poetry, short fiction, spoken word, and interviews that they then edit and produce as a monthly podcast. Reaching thousands of people around the world each month, Sending Messages is one of the programs created by the non-profit Spy Hop Productions, an organization in Salt Lake City that empowers youth by teaching them how to use various multi-media. Adam Sherlock heads Sending Messages. He had produced his own well-respected podcast and had a decades-long experience of working with incarcerated youth offenders. Although Adam Sherlock is clearly the right man for the job, Sending Messages wasn't his brainchild.
Adam Sherlock: Matt Mateus at Spy Hop he really spearheaded this idea. And when he brought it to me it was this real dream come true because the idea of these kids being able to share with the world the experiences that they've gone through and be able to write it in a way that when they would talk people would listen. And I think that that's one of the first times that that's happened for a lot of the kids that I've worked with. And Matt really wanted to reach out to that group and Matt knew that this was both field that I was passionate in, so he was sort of like, "Oh, well this is a perfect fit". You know, there was a lot of jumping through red tape and whatnot. And there's a good reason why we're the only youth produced podcast in secure care because there's a lot of concerns, and rightly so, that come up when you say "Hey, we want to give these kids the microphone".
Jo Reed: . How did you choose which kids to be in the program?
Adam Sherlock: You know, one thing that's really interesting about that is that the medium of radio by its own merit is really this great equalizer and this great leveler because the actual software that we use, the software that you and I are both using right now to record this conversation, it's easier to use than most of the videogames that these kids grow up on, right? And so my vetting process for who gets in the class is totally blind. It's whoever has the ability to be in it, in terms of privileges, right, and then in terms of the school credit and should they be in another class right now or can they be in this? Which in this case they do get like an arts or a language arts credit for doing the class because it's basically a creative writing class and an arts class. Beyond that, you know, you do end up with a lot of kids who are undocumented, who are borderline illiterate and come into the class and normally they would be either ostracized or completely set aside from being a part of this project because their handwriting is so atrocious or their grammar is or any of these other things. Whereas, to me, my attitude is read it out loud to me. Does it sound like you? I don't care how it's spelled because we're never going to put it into print. Right? I don't care if I can't read it. Read it out loud to me. Can you read it? Or even if it's I can't put together a sentence well enough to write out what I want to say, make notes for yourself, memorize the parts that you want to do and then whatever isn't working can you edit it out later? And these kids they are able to do that aspect of it. They're able to learn those hands on techniques so quickly that I might have one student over here who is so engaged with slam poetry that he is getting in trouble because he's carrying around a thesaurus with him from the school library. And then next to him is a kid who is the only English speaker in his family and reads and writes on a third grade level and both of them are producing really, really compelling pieces for the podcast. We use Garage Band. Garage Band, essentially, looks like a videogame. So even a student of mine who maybe couldn't sit down and write out what it was that he was going to read, could actually go in and with enough knowledge of just single word notes, and, okay, I know the direction of the piece, do everything he needs to do, go in, edit it, add music to it, do all of the volume fades, and end up with this beautiful piece that completely expresses the thing that he wants to say. And normally, in a regular school setting he would be eliminated from participating in this.
Jo Reed: You mentioned the editorial process. You work one on one with the students and then you have a number of pieces. What happens, you and all of the students together decide what's going to be on this month's podcast?
Adam Sherlock: Yeah, I mean essentially we have a big production board that has a listing down the side of all of the different topics and they'll choose the topics. Usually they come up with these really great single word that could mean a myriad of different things and so you'll see one word will just say trapped and that's what they'll choose, like, "Ooh, Let's have an episode called trapped". And there's so many different ways that these kids can utilize that one word as a jumping off point for either a poem or a song or a story or even some students will want to be more of a producer and less of the author. And so they'll go around and they'll interview peers and teachers and therapists, "what does trapped mean to you?" and then compile it into a larger piece. And, so trapped, another one was overboard. You know, this is what the kids come up with. Those words are up on the board and then each kid decides, "Oh, I'm going to write a piece about overboard. I totally have something for that." and once there are seven done on there, that's when we then go to the phase of actually having a host come in and host the finished episode. But each one of those individual pieces is written, recorded, edited and produced by that single student, unless it's a collaborative effort. But usually they bring me the finished MP3s. So each one of these kids leaves with being able to edit and produce their own podcast if they wanted to.
Jo Reed: And they also pick the host? The host volunteers? How is the host arranged?
Adam Sherlock: Either a host volunteers. Sometimes, some people will say, "Oh, you know who would be great to do this one is so and so." or the third option is whoever didn't have a piece. So if I have, let's say, nine students and eight of them write a piece for an episode, rather than having someone who's voice all ready appears on the episode, we'll have the student who didn't do anything for that episode be the host.
Jo Reed: And these are kids who really have significant legal problems.
Adam Sherlock: Yes. Yes. You're talking about everything from, you know, one facility we do have youth sex offenders, at another facility we have gang members, kids with very violent histories. You have kids that are third and fourth generation gang members who not just their parents were in gangs but their grandparents were in gangs, aunts and uncles, everyone they know. You know, I have students who have stories of being three years old and their parents taking them with them for a burglary and breaking the window and pushing the kid through the window to go around and unlock the door for mom and dad. And so they're really entrenched in this to such a degree and if you ask those kids, "Okay, tell me a story of your life, but I want to make sure that it sounds like you learned something at the end of it", nothing is going to happen, right? But if you tell a kid tell this story of your life to someone who's never been afraid of going to jail and what they have to do is take three or four giant steps back. And once they do take those three or four giant steps back, the view of what's happened to them is no longer this thing that they didn't have some agency in, like, the agency that we put ourselves in in order to tell stories. Are we the little feather in “Forrest Gump” that's just being blown from, you know, one breeze to another and none of it's in our control? Or did we make decisions? Did we have moments of jealousy or moments of weakness? Are we afraid of failure? Are we afraid of following in our father's footsteps? Those larger themes are universal. And so, when my kids kind of a grab a hold of those, you're putting it all through the lens or all through the guise of we're doing good radio work here when what we're really trying to do is help these kids be able to tell their own stories in a way that starts to make more sense and then they don't feel so alone.
Jo Reed: Which is good radio work actually.
Adam Sherlock: Yeah. It is.
Jo Reed: The release of being able to actually tell your own story, I would imagine, is really profound. It's a way of channeling those feelings into something else, something quite tangible.
Adam Sherlock: Right, and keeping the story true but changing it. It was Salman Rushdie, that was his whole quote was this idea of if you can't take a story and retell it and rethink it and you're just stuck with the original version of it, you'll never grow. Because if you can't take that and change it as you change, we're trying to ask these kids, "Okay, take accountability, take responsibility and find empathy for your fellow man", and they're stuck with the old version of their story, then there is no redemption in that story. It's just they're on their way to prison like all of the people in their lives before them. And to help them rewrite that story using the same facts, can be really powerful in that way.
If I were to take a look at a picture of my fragmented youth, I would life at how all the lies were glued together. I look at this family photo as if it were a history lesson to be learned from, but never repeated. I start with my mother. She's a tough women, but I would say that every tough person has a soft spot. Her soft spot is her children, especially her first-born. She would often turn a blind eye to my mischief even when I was destroying myself. Even when she did confront me, she couldn't stay mad forever. I remember a time when I failed a class in fifth grade and knew I was doomed to be grounded for an entire summer. When I made it home, I handed her my report card and she lectured me before handing me my sentence of three months house arrest. At that age, I figured my life was over. But before I knew it, my parents took pity on me and, after what seemed like an eternity, I was free. Sadly, this became a constant in our lives and eventually she just left me to my own devices which was not good.
Jo Reed: You mentioned red tape, what kind of red tape did you have to go through?
Adam Sherlock: So there's a lot of concerns of these kids that these kids will try to send messages to gangs or gang members or things like that. But the fact is that because that is so much of my background, you kind of have to know what you're looking at and what you're listening to. And not just in terms of coded messages, although those have come up, and I'm always the first one to say, "Well, why does it have to be the number thirteen?" or "Why did the guy's eyes have to be blue?". But even beyond that, so many of these kids in the environment that they've grown up in, the only way that they know how to talk about their experiences that they've had in their lives is to either not talk about it all or to tell a war story and boast about it. Anything else in there, the concept of it being a catalyst, the concept of it being something that's cathartic doesn't occur to them and they have to sort of learn that through the process of writing and rewriting to find out, well, where is a universal theme beyond all of these other ways that I would tell this story. And so I think because they don't have those tools initially there is some pushback and there is concern because they don't want these kids to glorify these stories. And, you know, that was never our intention either was to ever create a show that in any way would be carnival barking about these kids' experiences.
Jo Reed: Tell me about the kind of feedback that you've been getting. And I first want to hear the kind of feedback you get from the students themselves?
Adam Sherlock: We can imagine what impact that this has on these kids. You know, I've had students say "I feel like I've tried in the past to express the way that I feel, the things I'm angry about or the things I want and I get treated like oh yeah, yeah, yeah and I'm not listened to.” And they say, “But sitting down and working on this for so long and getting every syllable just right, and getting every word that I want in there, the way that I want it, I know people are going to listen.” That's some of the feedback. You know, you never know... We can sit and we can look at the efficacy. Some things can be so nuanced that you don't really know what the impact is. And the things that they say are very different than what you might think that they would be, you know, everything from some kids saying, "For the two hours when I do this I feel normal. I feel like I am expressing myself in a normal way. It's not me, you know, using my fists to try and express myself or trying to find a hit so that I don't have to feel anything and then I don't care about expressing myself". Some kids have said, "Just the fact that I'm there" and that they know, you know, Spy Hop's a nonprofit and all of the money that we get to be able to do programs like this, are either made through grants or made through private donations that we get from donors and the students know that. And I remember a conversation with a student where he asked me, he was like, “You must be rich, man.” And I'm like, "These aren't mine", and I had to explain to him how a nonprofit works and he was just floored. He was dumbfounded by that. And he asked me, “So people give you money to come here and do this with us?” And I said, "Yes." And he said, “Do they know who we are?”
Jo Reed: God, that's so heartbreaking.
Adam Sherlock: Yeah.
I wish I could think of a wish. I wish I had an actual wish. I wish I had a normal life. I wish I could live a crime free life. I wish I could've never been locked up. I wish life was like monopoly. I wish I had a get out of jail free card. I wish life was so easy that we could just stop, like in a game, and start fresh each time. I wish I could live without any drama. I wish I could live forever. I wish life was like a TV remote, where we could skip or fast forward the parts we didn't like. I wish I could go home. I wish I had a home. I wish I had my own little world where I could escape reality and I go wherever, whenever. I wish I could touch the sky. I wish I could float with the stars. I wish I was a star and just float around. And when I fall and crash, I would still be worth more than gold. I wish I had more than one wish. I wish I didn't have to wish. I wish I had everything to begin with.
Jo Reed: And what about from the staff at the facility, I'm curious about that. Have you gotten feedback from them?
Adam Sherlock: Oh yeah, the staff loves it. It's funny because people who have never gone with me, even other people at Spy Hop, who haven't gone with me out to these facilities they have an idea of what it's like in their head. And, you know, for people who haven't been to these kinds of facilities whatever you're imagining that it's like in your head, you're probably about 60 percent right. They're not happy places, but my class is. I mean we have a blast. We have so much fun and it's so creative and it's not a classroom, it's a work environment. We really are an editing office, you know, we're an editing house. And everybody's working and everybody's running around and everybody's helping each other out with projects and it's really, really fun. And so the staff totally get into it. And they really see the long term effects that it has on these kids. And to be able to have a group of students that are in a secure care corrections facility have things they're working that they're proud of, that's more powerful than a million locks on a million doors. I guess this was about three years ago we had a deadline because you can't put out the Christmas episode after Christmas, so like we had to get this thing to air by the 21 of December. And one of the kids who was going to host got into a fight with another kid. And the rest of the guys in my class were so angry at him because it meant that we weren't going to meet our deadline that we had a whole meeting about it. You know, and they were taking the agency, when normally they could care less if another kid in their group got into a fight. But this meant that this thing that they were proud that they'd been working on was on the line. Beyond just the staff there, getting feedback from some of the parole boards, things of that nature, and they listen to the program and it's so impactful for them because these kids get up in front of you and they realize that it's up to you right now whether or not they might get more or less time. They're like, you know, they'll kind of sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, right? But to hear them speak, not to sway anyone's judgment, this is just their honest voices pouring out into the ether and it's their real take on these situations and they speak so honestly, these people have become back to me and said, “Wow, you know, I heard that voice. I know who that kid is and I cannot believe that that's what he took away from that experience. That really touched me.”
Here sits a man lonely and broken, nostalgic and forgotten, lovelorn and unspoken. Here sits a man contemplating death, remembering life, wondering which will be his last breath. Here sits a man living yet still dying, proud yet still ashamed, smiling yet still crying.
Here sits a man feeling betrayed and used, hurt and abandoned, lost and confused.
Here sits a man at the bottom of his last bottle begging and pleading, no pride left to swallow.
Here sits a man who thinks this could be the end, who wants to give up, who believes his heart is too broken to mend.
Here sits a man living with no regret, only mistakes of which he never forgets.
Now here lies a man still and lifeless, knowing true love, a man many will miss.
Adam Sherlock:And so, you know, I think in the insight that can be gained from it is pretty revelatory.
Jo Reed: And I would imagine that would also be true for family members.
Adam Sherlock: Oh yeah. Definitely. And it's interesting too because through the podcast subscription feeds and the way RSS subscription works, you know, you can see where these downloads are coming from. And here in Salt Lake, it's unfortunate, but we do get a decent number of refugee youth ending up in secure care. You know, they get caught up in the gang life and things like this and I'll have some of those kids in my classes and for the period of six months or whatever that that student is doing work in my class you'll see these numbers spike up in Somalia and then drop once that student is out of my class. Or you'll see the numbers pop up in Kenya and then drop after he's in my class. And so the idea that there's family members back there that hear this teenager that they know is in trouble, but they aren't able to talk to for maybe a myriad of reasons, if they're not on the call list or whatever, but they're able to hear him over the radio.
Jo Reed: And you have many musicians who just let the students use their music for the podcast. They just give it away.
Adam Sherlock: Many, many. We have a huge list and we have that up on the website and, man, they are such talented people and we appreciate it so much. And, you know, there's other interesting things like that that happen where one student was writing this letter to his grandmother who had just recently passed away and, you know, it was a really hard piece for him to write but he wanted this piece of music behind it that was by just some amateur musician on SoundCloud.com. And I said, "Well, we can't just take it because that's her art". And I was like, "But you can email her and tell her what you're doing and see if she'll let you use it". And so he did and for some reason she was on SoundCloud right that minute. She wrote him back five minutes later and was like, “Oh my God, that sounds amazing. Of course, use it.”
This is a very hard time for me. I made a decision to stay and get caught up with my school. This place has really made me take a look at what I've done and what I have at home. I really started to see the true effects of what I've done. I just wanted to let you know, I know I've caused you, and all of our family, a world of hurt. I really, really want to change that. I want to prove to myself, you, and everyone, and everyone in our family that I've changed. And that I've changed for the better. I want nothing more than to be by your bedside with all of our family. I want you to know that I'm truly sorry for all the hurt I've made you suffer through. I also want you to know that I love you and I always will. I want to tell you that I'm praying for you. I'm praying to the Heavenly Father that if it's your time, to take you so you can watch over us. You're in my prayers every night. You've been here pretty much all my life. You've always loved me, even through these last couple years and I love you so much for that. You mean the world to me. You'll always be in my heart. I have faith that if you leave us and join our Heavenly Father, he will have a special place for you. He'll have you fuss over all the cleaning in his kingdom. I love you so much.
your grandson, forever and always
Adam Sherlock: And it was this really important moment, I think, for him that he felt like one artist talking to another artist about hey can we collaborate, can I use this piece for this. And, you know, he let her know when the episode went up with the piece on it and she wrote him back. Something like that would never happen for a youth like this. And so I think it was a really important moment.
Jo Reed: And Sending Messages is an award-winning podcast
Adam Sherlock: Yes. We try to put that on all of our media because we're super proud of it.
Jo Reed: I would be too. That must make them so proud.
Adam Sherlock: It really does. It was in 2012 that we won the American Probation of Parole Association Award for Media Awareness. And for my students to know that I was going to go out and actually play some of their pieces, so that some of their voices would be heard by parole officers from all over the U.S., man, they were beaming. They were just beaming with pride.
Jo Reed: I know this is hard but is it at all possible to trace the impact of Sending Message on the students after they leave the facility?
Adam Sherlock: I would never pretend that this project is the thing that solves these problems or I would never look through rose-tinted glasses at where these kids have come from. Yet, I will say that I think being locked up is a catalytic moment in these kids' lives. It is this moment when they really are truly at this crossroads. I think that the ways that something like Sending Messages can help is A, through trying to change that agency like we were talking about before through storytelling, right. What does my story actual mean? Am I destined to just follow in these footsteps? Or is there another option for me? The second part of that is so many of these kids are creative and do have a lot of art, but they don't have a love of art because of expression. Or they don't know that yet. They think they have a love of art because they want to become rich, right? They want to become the next Jay-Z. They want money. They want power. And they want sex. If you can show them hey it's worth it to do this just to get that steam out. You have that ball of hate inside of you that's causing you to do so much of this, if you can just release that valve a little bit through doing this, write, sing, rap, whatever, through that art, that that can be a way to channel that. And then realize oh, and if I do that and I put that art out there into the world I might meet a different community of people. There might be other people out there who like the same things that I like and we could make that kind of art together. Those little lessons along the way can help so much. I, myself, had enough moments in my life when I was these guy's age that I could have taken a step this way or that way and ran into very similar things as these guys and I think it was my love of music and of writing and of art that changed a lot of that. And I think for a lot of these young kids, yeah, a hobby isn't going to 100 percent change your life, but it has the possibility to lead these kids down a different path. You know, and I think that for our students a lot of times I'd say this not just for Sending Messages but Spy Hop, in general, for our youth to work with mentors who have passion and get excited about art and are like oh, dude, did you hear this, did you check this out? And that's not part of our job to be excited about a new record that comes out or a new book that comes out. This is being in love with art. And I think it validates and legitimizes their passion and their love of those things and makes them realize like this is something that you get to continue to be forever, you know, whether it's a thing that ends up being your job or not.
Jo Reed: Absolutely. Adam, many, many congratulations and thank you for really the wonderful work that you do.
Adam Sherlock: Oh, thank you so much.
That was Adam Sherlock. He's head of Sending Messages the monthly podcast created by incarcerated youth. We also heard from Alias, the Architect, and Shadow. You've been listing to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at ITunes U. Just click on the ITunes link on our podcast page. To find out how art works in communities across the country keep checking the Art Works blog or follow us @NEAarts on twitter. For the National Endowment for the arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.