13 tips for facilitating youth media programs with teens who are incarcerated

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Megan Sobchuk

Three teens get ready to record an interview in the library at the Judge Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle during a RadioActive Youth Media podcasting workshop on April 15, 2021.

Young people’s voices and perspectives are often left out of news coverage. That’s especially true of the youth made most vulnerable in our communities, like youth who are experiencing homelessness, who are refugees, and who are incarcerated. 

One way to address that? Pass the mic. Host storytelling and media-making workshops for local teens and tweens. Amplify their stories. Make it possible for them to fully access the skills, community and resources of public media journalism. 

Through youth media programs, young people build skills in media literacy, self-authorship and civic engagement, while news organizations build relationships with members of the community they might not otherwise reach. It’s also a win for audience members of all ages, who, through youth-made stories, gain a deeper understanding of the issues facing young people in their neighborhoods. It’s all part of public media’s mission to “create stories by and about Americans of all diverse backgrounds.”

It’s clear: youth media is worth the investment. But this article is about facilitating media-making workshops with a specific group: teens who are incarcerated. 

RadioActive Youth Media, the teen journalism program at KUOW Public Radio in Seattle where I work, has been leading podcasting workshops at two juvenile detention centers since 2015. A 2021 podcast produced by teens in one of those workshops, “‘They can never lock your mind up’: Three stories from juvenile jail”, received national recognition.

After years of making audio stories with teens who are incarcerated, I compiled a list of the things I wish I knew when I started. These tips may also be useful for leading media-making programs with adults who are incarcerated, as well as for facilitating youth media workshops in other environments that are highly surveilled, or where youth are made especially vulnerable, such as in hospitals or emergency shelters. 

These tips are intended for youth media educators who already have experience facilitating youth media programs but who are new to being inside and facilitating inside youth detention centers. If you’re brand new to youth media, or want a refresher on all the best practices, stop here and check out the Youth Media Starter Guide written by Mary Heisey and me. It’s got everything you need to get started.

1. Think critically about the purpose of your partnership with a juvenile detention center. 

People who are incarcerated have been — and continue to be — ignored, misrepresented and harmed by legacy media outlets. Before beginning a partnership with a youth detention center, be prepared to explain how your approach to media-making is different. Enter this partnership with the goal of centering youth well-being in all you do and ensuring youth have as much agency over their stories and the experience as possible.

Start by answering these questions: 

  1. Why should the young people in this facility trust us with their stories?
  2. How will our program give more than it takes from these young people?
  3. How will our program guard against exploiting youth, even unintentionally? 
  4. How will our program keep young people physically and emotionally safe?
  5. How will our program acknowledge the long history of harm caused by American journalism, especially to people of color, and participate in media reparations? 

As a starting place for these conversations, I turn to “Media 2070”, a groundbreaking essay about the history of anti-Black racism in American journalism and the future of media reparations. I also love reporter Sandhya Dirks’ essay “Listening is an Act of Power” and Natalie Yahr’s “Why Should I Tell You?: A Guide to Less-Extractive Reporting”

For more about how to get started with youth media partnerships in general, check out the ‘Working with Partners’ section of the Youth Media Starter Guide. 

More resources are linked at the end of this article. 

2. Learn everything you can about the facility you’ll be working in. 

When preparing to facilitate a media-making workshop with youth who are incarcerated, get as much information as you can about the detention center from as many different sources as possible, including detention center staff, volunteers, educators, news articles, current and former youth incarcerated at the facility, parents, activists and organizers. 

Questions to consider asking: 

  1. Who are the youth detained at this facility? (Ages? Genders? Where are they from?) 
  2. What type of facility is this? What is this facility’s mission? 
  3. Why are youth incarcerated here? Are the youth here awaiting trial, have they already been sentenced, or are they simply awaiting a safe place to go? (While you don’t need to know any information about youth’s individual cases, I’ve found that it’s helpful for facilitators to know, generally, why youth are in this facility.)
  4. What is the average length of stay in this facility? What is it supposed to be? 
  5. What is an average day at this facility like for the youth here? 
  6. What is the culture like among youth here? Among staff?
  7. What is the history of this facility? When was it built and why?
  8. How has this facility changed over the past few years? 
  9. What problems is the detention center experiencing right now?
  10. Are any changes expected in this facility’s future? 
  11. How has the surrounding community responded to this facility? 
  12. What are this facility’s policies and best practices for visiting facilitators? Are there restrictions (e.g. age) about who can come in as a facilitator? 
  13. Can the work (writing, photos, audio, etc.) youth create in this media-making workshop be published? What are the requirements for publication? What are the potential risks of publication and how can those risks be mitigated? (More on publishing in tip #11.)
  14. Can we compensate youth in this facility for producing stories for our station? If so, how? (More on compensation in tip #11.)
  15. What else should we know about working in this specific youth detention facility?

While you’re learning about the specific facility you’ll be working in, I also suggest learning as much as you can about the history and daily realities of incarceration in this country, especially if you don’t have lived experience with incarceration yourself. Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness” and “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson are must-reads for learning about the carceral system in the U.S. 

The most valuable information about the experience of incarceration comes from people who have lived it, and the Marshall Project’s Inside Story and Life Inside, the Prison Journalism Project’s stories and Scalawag’s Condemned are all places to find reporting and writing by people who are incarcerated.

3. Utilize the same facilitation best practices you use in any youth program. 

Leading high-quality, trauma-informed youth programs is especially important when working with youth who are in vulnerable positions. RadioActive Youth Media uses a tool called the Youth Program Quality Assessment (YPQA) to help build and maintain supportive youth environments. You can download the YPQA assessment tool for free. Some of these facilitation best practices include: 

  • Set and stick to community agreements
  • Set clear goals. Be explicit about what the space is and isn’t for during the workshop. 
  • Meet youth’s basic needs. Bring meals, snacks and drinks (within the facility’s rules). Schedule time for bathroom breaks and breaks for rest or prayer. Allow youth to opt out of the workshop. Set up a place where youth can read, draw or nap on their own if they don’t want to participate. 
  • Prioritize youth safety, well-being and positive experience over making “great content” or teaching certain skills. What we teach and produce should never be more important than having fun and building genuine connections with youth. 
  • Pair youth with adult facilitators they can relate to. Youth often say they enjoy working with adults who look and talk like them and who share their culture, experiences and identities. As one young person put it, “Shared experiences equal deeper connections.” 
  • Give youth meaningful choices. You might ask youth to choose from a selection of different pieces of media to engage with, or to choose between two different activities, or to choose whether they want to work individually or in small groups, or to choose what type of media they want to make, or to choose their story topics, or to choose what snacks they want you to bring in. Prioritize youth decision-making and agency. 
  • Encourage youth to ask questions. Affirm youth when they do ask questions. Build in time for Q&A sessions and checking for comprehension. Make it clear that it’s OK to interrupt you with questions. 
  • Give youth enough time to process questions. Instead of asking a big group a question and waiting through silence, have them journal or “pair and share” their answers first to give them time to gather their thoughts. 
  • Provide different ways for youth to engage and share. You might ask youth to participate in any given activity by writing in a journal, talking to a partner or putting a sticker on the board next to the response they most agree with. If a youth isn’t interested in participating the same way everyone else is, find other roles for them, such as illustrating or finding music for a peer’s story. 
  • Be flexible with where the group wants to go. Coming in with “items we need to get through” can be overwhelming for vulnerable youth in a space that’s highly surveilled. Give youth as much freedom as possible. Never force a young person to participate. 
  • Make time for slowness. Try not to over-schedule. Plan to do less. Build in time for downtime, breaks and organic connection. Come in with a bank of activities to choose from but know that you may only get to a handful of them. 
  • Model humility and realness. Come into the facilitation space relaxed, grounded, humble and positive. Take a few minutes to ground yourself before entering the space. 
  • Collect and implement feedback. Provide structured opportunities for youth to give feedback throughout the workshop in both informal (i.e., asking questions) and formal (i.e., surveys) ways. Assess your program and make changes to it based on that feedback. 

4. Be an open and curious listener, and refrain from making assumptions.

Like in all youth programs, show youth that you are listening to them and that you’re curious about their actual thoughts. Ask them open-ended questions. Ask them to clarify and elaborate. Challenge them to go deeper or defend an idea. Encourage them to ask you questions. 

Enter this partnership with the goal of centering youth well-being in all you do and ensuring youth have as much agency over their stories and the experience as possible.

Never talk down to youth or make assumptions about their thoughts, their experiences, their future or their interests. For example, some youth might already be parents or be pregnant. They may or may not be married or have long-term romantic partners. They may be queer or not, religious or not, and hold any number of different identities. They may be incarcerated for any number of reasons, including serious offenses like murder. They may have been incarcerated for two days, or two years. They may or may not have loved ones who are or were incarcerated, and have opinions about that. They may or may not agree that some people ought to be incarcerated (i.e., don’t assume youth who are incarcerated are prison abolitionists). 

5. Prioritize connection over content. 

Producing a story in a youth media program can be a liberating experience for a young person. But youth media programs can also unintentionally exploit vulnerable youth if they’re not facilitated with care, intention and expertise. 

When leading a media-making workshop inside a youth detention center, your goal is to create the space and provide the tools necessary for young people to build positive relationships, try something new in a supportive environment and express themselves freely.

Your goal should never be to find sources or story ideas for your own journalism projects. And you should not prioritize making “great content” for publication over the experience and well-being of youth. (E.g. if you’re leading a podcasting workshop, but youth want to spend the day recording themselves singing goofy karaoke, run with that joy.) That said, it’s wonderful if youth happen to make something great that they want folks on the outside to see and you’re able to publish it.

6. Be flexible and expect changes. 

Things are always changing at a detention center. You might arrive on day two of a two-day workshop to find that you’re working with a completely new group of youth than you were with the day before. The detention center might cancel your workshop at the last minute, shorten it without warning, add new youth to the group or move your group to a new location. Detention staff might tell you to plan to work with boys and then bring you a group of girls. They might have prepared youth for what to expect in your workshop, or not. (Yes, these are all real examples from RadioActive.) Do your best to expect these changes, plan for them and roll with them when they happen.

7. Build trust with youth by getting to know them and sharing things about yourself (within the facility’s rules). 

Playing get-to-know-you games like “Two Truths and a Lie” with youth and facilitators can be a fun way to start off a program. Young people tend to enjoy when visiting adults share things about themselves as a way of breaking the ice. 

However, detention facilities often have strict rules against facilitators sharing their full names, school or work affiliations, social media handles or contact information. At many detention centers, youth are not allowed to contact a visiting facilitator after the workshop, even after they’ve left detention. Youth may be allowed to contact your organization, though, and you can let them know that.

8. Remind youth that the programming space is not confidential and youth should not talk about their cases. 

At the beginning of the session, tell youth that their interactions in the programming space are not confidential. First, let youth know if your facilitators are required to report if youth share thoughts of harming themselves or others, or disclose child abuse or neglect. Second, emphasize to youth that they should not talk about their cases to anyone except their lawyers. 

Any information they share in the programming space, even inadvertently, can be used against them. The space is not private, and you never know how information youth share will be relayed or used. Do not ask youth questions that could incriminate them. Also, interrupt if you sense they may be sharing anything about why they’re there. You might say, “I am happy you’re willing to share this with me. But this space isn’t private. We should not discuss your case here.” 

The detention center you’re in may have additional rules about what youth can and can’t talk about in the programming space and in any stories they produce. 

(Photo: Megan Sobchuk)

9. Keep your focus on youth but utilize trusting relationships with staff if present. 

Youth will have varying relationships with officers, guards, librarians, teachers and other detention center staff members. Depending on the facility, youth may have positive relationships with some of the staff members that can help encourage program participation. For example, the detention center librarian may feel more comfortable calling on a student to answer a question because they know them well and know they have something to say. Or staff might ask questions of youth who they know want to participate but who might be a little shy or unsure about visiting facilitators — i.e. the staff can help you break the ice. 

You can often observe how young people are interacting with the adults in the room to pick up some context and clues about their relationships. However, if at any point detention center staff are derailing the program or focusing on themselves, return the focus to youth and the program goals.

10. Minimize the equipment you bring in and make an equipment inventory list that’s easy for you to use.

Each facility has different rules about what supplies outsiders can bring in. For example, items like paper clips, staples, charging cords and ink pens might not be allowed (or they may be allowed, but you’ll be required to account for each item before you leave). 

Youth tend to get excited about working with gear like cameras, audio recorders and computers with editing software, so bring and use that kind of equipment if you can. However, it’s important to only bring in the items you actually need. For example, maybe you bring in cameras but leave the camera bags in the car. This is because the more equipment you bring in, the more you have to keep track of. 

I once misplaced a headphone bag during a workshop in a youth jail. In most settings, a missing headphone bag isn’t a big deal. But in a jail, any item that is not accounted for is treated as a safety risk. In this case, jail administrators said the drawstring on the missing bag could be used by youth to harm themselves or others. Luckily, we found the bag before guards started a search of the youth’s living spaces.

I recommend designing an easy and efficient way to ensure that, when you leave at the end of the day, every single piece of equipment you brought in is accounted for — all the way down to individual SD cards and batteries. I like to assign each facilitator a few items to be in charge of and have them check off their items at the beginning and end of each workshop day.

Finally, know that you’ll have to get all the equipment through security when you arrive. I once had an officer spend a full hour inspecting each of the 10 audio recorders we brought in, so be sure to allocate lots of time for entering the facility. 

11. Make an editing and publication plan while also knowing that publication may not happen. 

Continue to center youth well-being after the workshop by including youth in the publishing process. To get started, check out the editing and publishing best practices for youth-produced stories in the ‘Editorial’ section of the Youth Media Starter Guide. 

Additional things to consider: 

  1. Enthusiastic and informed consent from youth: Only publish stories that youth are excited about publishing. Don’t pressure youth into publishing their work. Make ‘plain language’ versions of broadcast release forms so they aren’t in legalese. If a young person consents to be published but then comes to you months or years later and asks for their story to be taken down, honor their request. 
  2. Informed consent from parents and guardians: You’ll likely need parent/guardian consent to publish work produced by minors. The detention center staff can usually communicate with family on your behalf, explain the workshop, answer questions and ask for their permission. When possible, it’s best to connect with guardians before the workshop, not after. 
  3. Review from lawyers or case managers: Consider asking each teens’ legal advisors to review their story before it’s published to avoid inadvertently publishing something that harms their case.
  4. Consent from the detention center: You’ll likely need the detention center to approve publication of youth-made stories. Make a plan early on about how this will look, who you’ll be working with and what content oversight they will and won’t have. Know that consent from the detention center may be very difficult to get, and could change or be revoked without notice. RadioActive ran podcasting workshops in a detention center for six years before we got the OK to publish youth’s podcasts. 
  5. Anonymity: Take all possible precautions to keep minors anonymous. No names, identifiable nicknames or other identifying details should be included in the stories. Photos should not include faces, ID bracelets, tattoos or any other identifying information.
  6. Editing and fact-checking: It can sometimes be hard to connect with youth again once you’ve left the detention center, so fact-checking and final edit processes may look different than they usually do at your shop. Talk through these processes with your station’s editorial leadership and the detention center before the workshop. Explain clearly to youth what will happen to their stories once you leave with them. Avoid publishing something that’s gone through so many edits without the youth producer’s knowledge that the final story no longer feels like “theirs.” 
  7. Compensation: Whenever possible, pay youth who contribute to your station. We’ve had good luck buying gift cards for the detention center to put with the youth’s personal items. You may also be able to put money toward youth’s restitution costs. 
  8. Minimizing harm: When publishing youth-produced stories, talk with your editorial leadership about how you can minimize potential harm to all people involved, including youth producers and audience members. Some questions I’ve asked are: “How will we prevent a youth producer from being ‘doxxed’ on social media and handle it if it does happen?” And, “What does a trauma-informed approach to publishing stories about violence look like?” Above everything else, remember your goal is to minimize harm.

12. You might grapple with working within a system that is harmful. 

It might feel like you’re propping up a harmful system by offering a workshop in a detention center. Our observation is that stuff that breaks up the monotony for youth is welcome. So your non-condescending presence — even if youth might not seem animated at first — is probably welcome. At the end of our sessions, youth regularly ask when we’re coming back. You need to decide whether working within this system is OK for you, but youth feedback suggests they generally enjoy the experience and enjoy sharing the stories they make with the people in their lives. That said, there’s no program we can run that erases the fact that we’re working within a dehumanizing system. 

13. You must take care of yourself. 

Spending time in spaces where people are incarcerated is hard, especially if you or your loved ones have experience with incarceration. This workshop may be difficult for you in ways you can’t yet know. 

Create time for yourself before and after the workshop to mentally and physically prepare to be in the space, and to care for yourself afterwards. You might want to make a cup of tea and journal, spend time with friends, meditate — whatever you do to care for yourself. Try, if possible, not to schedule anything else on the days you’re working at the detention center. You may feel more drained than you expect after the workshop, especially if working at a detention center is new for you. If at all possible, make the detention center workshop the only thing that you’re doing on workshop days, and possibly give yourself a free day afterwards to rest and reflect. 

And in the weeks and months and years that follow your time at the detention center, consider how you’ll continue to show up for youth media makers and youth who are incarcerated. How will you continue to educate yourself and others? How will you revitalize yourself and care for yourself and your community? How will you continue to stay in the fight for youth safety, youth freedom and youth voice? 

More resources for preparing to lead media-making workshops with youth who are incarcerated 

This tip sheet is a living document, and feedback and additions are welcome on this Google Doc or by emailing Kelsey at kkupferer@kuow.org. These tips were informed by educators, journalists, youth workers and organizers across the country including Mary Heisey, Lila Lakehart, Troy Landrum Jr., Trimarco Green and Simone “Frankie” St. Pierre Nelson, as well as folks at Liberation Library, SoapBox Productions and Organizing, Creative Justice, Ear Hustle, Uncuffed, Prison Radio International, RadioActive Youth Media and KUOW Public Radio.

Kelsey Tolchin-Kupferer is a teacher, journalist and audio producer. She works with teens to produce radio stories and podcasts for KUOW’s RadioActive Youth Media in Seattle.

One thought on “13 tips for facilitating youth media programs with teens who are incarcerated

  1. Excellent, thoughtful and thorough piece, Kelsey. Thanks so much for sharing with Current’s readers. I have a few more resources/projects to point out (and there are more which readers/subscribers can find if they use the search term “prison” at Current._

    Series of conversations between prisoners and community members wins Current’s Local That Works contest https://current.org/2018/10/series-of-conversations-between-prisoners-and-community-members-wins-currents-local-that-works-contest/

    ‘Uncuffed’ podcast lets incarcerated people tell their stories, their way https://current.org/2021/04/uncuffed-podcast-lets-incarcerated-people-tell-their-stories-their-way/

    After parole, podcast producers are turning skills learned in prison into paying gigs

    WBEZ’s ‘Prisoncast!’ returns to create radio for incarcerated people and their families https://current.org/2023/09/wbezs-prisoncast-returns-to-create-radio-for-incarcerated-people-and-their-families/

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