An audio journalism program that trains incarcerated people in the skills necessary to work in radio upon release had its first graduation for students at San Quentin State Prison in April.
Un-cuffed, an award-winning podcast produced by the incarcerated, started at SQ three years ago. It has been expanded to Solano and seeks to reach other prisons.
“What we do at Un-cuffed is show our humanity by telling stories from an incarcerated person’s perspective,” said Edmond Richardson, one of the graduates and co-producers of the podcast.
Through the podcast, incarcerated people share intimate stories about their personal struggles and triumphs, and the heartache and forgiveness taking place within prison walls.
A handful of graduates came together with their outside volunteers in a quiet intimate setting in the SQ media center. Dressed in caps and gowns and with smiles on their faces each of the participants was photographed as they were called up to receive their certificates.
Two of the graduates whose names were called were absent due to parole: Nate McKinney and Chanthon Bun. There was no band, refreshments or extravagant event planned because of COVID-19.
“We just wanted to capture the moment together,” said Greg Eskridge, an award-winning journalist and longtime audio journalist of the San Quentin KALW radio program. Eskridge has been in training for a decade.
The graduates were recognized for years of hard work and dedication put into the audio program started by people behind bars in California prisons.
Andrew Stelzer is one of the outside volunteers who helped teach the program. He has been in radio since 2001.
“Being in radio doesn’t require certifications or degrees. It is all about what you can produce and how you sound on the mic and your editing skills,” said Stelzer. “It’s all about the story and engaging with other people.”
According to Stelzer, “Understanding where people are coming from is a key human skill.” It takes work to understand each other and appreciate each other’s diversity.
All of the graduates agreed that what they learned through Un-cuffed helped them develop the skills to communicate and engage better with people in the outside world. They learned how to navigate Pro Tools computer software and how to edit and develop stories on their own.
“This program taught me how to create a podcast from scratch, market it, turn it into employment and monetize it,” said Thanh Tran, another graduate and producer of the podcast.
Un-Cuffed won two awards in its first season from the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists in 2020. It also won an award from the San Francisco Press Journalistic Excellence Awards. It was one of the most popular podcasts produced by NPR stations in 2020.
“I recommend the program to other prisoners because I believe it will help them in their rehabilitation by giving them interpersonal relationship skills,” said Richardson. “The more you get to know your subject, the more you get to know yourself.”
The men say working in podcasting forces you to look deeper into a story and ask many questions that don’t simply reveal the problem but a potential solution. It also leads to personal growth.
Tommy “Shakur” Ross is a graduate who is going home after 36 years and seven months of being in prison.
“It feels good to have all these skills to take back to society with me,” Ross said. “I plan to do my own podcast about un-packing various forms of violence.”
Ross said coming to SQ changed his life and made him much more transparent and human.
“As the old saying goes, ‘when you know better, you have to do better’,” said Ross. He plans to do just that.