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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

'Mistakes Don't Make A Person': Incarcerated Milwaukee Teens Open Up In Podcast

Emily Files
The Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center in Wauwatosa houses a youth and family court and a youth detention facility.

Earlier this year, NPR's Education Team announced it was holding a podcast challenge for students. With help from teachers, middle and high schoolers from around the country submitted thousands of audio stories.

One podcast from the Milwaukee area stood out and was named a finalist. It came from three incarcerated teenagers at the Vel R. Phillips Juvenile Justice Center. The students go by the pseudonyms JT, JC and Joe.

“When I was 13 is when I really started to get involved in the street,” 15-year-old JT says in the 10-minute podcast submitted to NPR. “Walking around my neighborhood and seeing the so-called 'big homies.' I mean, I was young, I just wanted to be a follower.”

Sixteen-year-old JC adds, “Growing up in the wrong neighborhood with people who steal cars, deal drugs and do all sorts of illegal stuff. You see people who you think are famous, you want to be like them.”

JT, JC and Joe say in the podcast (you can listen to the podcast below) that they started stealing cars when they were around 13.

“Doing it over and over, it become a part of your life, like this is what you used to,” JT says. “And I was an A student. A,B,C student. I always had good grades. I was accepted into Golda Meir High School. That’s one of the top ones in Milwaukee. But the streets just was calling me. And I lost opportunities from it.”

The boys were part of the Milwaukee County Accountability Program (MCAP). It’s an alternative to Lincoln Hills, the youth prison about four hours away from Milwaukee. The goal of MCAP is to give incarcerated teens the tools they need to avoid reoffending. JT says the program taught him a different way to deal with his impulses. 

“The most important thing is stop and think,” JT says. “There’s three steps to it: be quiet, be calm and think straight.”

WUWM was able to speak with JT because he was still serving his sentence at Vel R. Phillips by the time NPR announced contest finalists in May. JC and Joe had been released from the detention center.

“I mean, the words just came to me, saying how I feel,” JT says about recording the podcast.

Participating in the NPR competition was teacher Krishana Robinson’s idea.

“[Recording their stories] provides an opportunity for students to reflect in a way I don’t think you just naturally do – out loud, with other people,” Robinson says.

"I'm not saying it's not their fault that they got into this situation. But we have to remember these are kids," says teacher Dave Mahdasian.

Another teacher, Dave Mahdasian, helped record and edit. He says they let the boys decide what they wanted to talk about.

“The conversation turned toward what they experienced,” Mahdasian says. “We knew that was a special moment. They were so honest and so open about everything.”

The teachers decided to keep the podcast going. They’ve recorded other students’ stories (with parental permission) and uploaded them online. Mahdasian says it helps “get some weight off [the students’] shoulders.”

“We’re getting more and more of an idea of what they’re experiencing as we do these podcasts, as well,” Mahdasian says. “More and more kids are opening up and telling us stories of abuse and neglect. So, I’m not saying it’s not their fault that they got into this situation. But we have to remember these are kids. And they’ve grown up in the worst possible scenarios.”

"Mistakes don't make a person. It's how you deal with your mistakes, how you change and what you make out of them," says JT.

JT says his main message for people who listen to the podcast is this: “Mistakes don’t make a person. It’s how you deal with your mistakes, how you change and what you make out of them. That’s the biggest message I could give anybody, including myself.”

After being incarcerated for about six months, JT was released from Vel R. Phillips and is currently on probation. He plans to go to summer school and stay out of trouble. JT says he doesn’t want to spend any more of his childhood behind bars.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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