In a Chinatown loft, three producers sit listening to a rough cut of a radio documentary. From the tape comes the low, husky voice of a kid called Dirty Redd. He grew up begging for food, or stealing it, when his crack-addicted mother couldn’t care for him. At 13, he landed in Rikers Island for theft. After his mother died, he went to jail upstate twice more for armed robbery.
“They classified me as a violent prisoner,” Andre Vaughn, now 21 and no longer sporting his nickname, narrates over the beat of a Dr. Dre song. But thanks to his own drive and some tough discussions with his supportive girlfriend, he’s landed on his feet and in the production studio, working on a documentary he hopes will help keep other teens out of jail.
Andre’s nine-minute audio snapshot is one of five recently produced by Youth Portraits, a collaboration between the Rikers-based Friends of Island Academy, a job training and peer counseling program for recently incarcerated youth, and Sound Portraits, an award-winning production company. The segments, to be aired on National Public Radio and Hot 97, chronicle the life experiences of teens who’ve spent time in prison. Typically, prospects for these kids are dismal: About 70 percent of prisoners under 18 end up back behind bars, according to the Correctional Association of New York.
Despite a 25 percent drop in crimes by teens since 1994, nearly every state in the union has passed or amended laws making it easier to try kids as adults. Youth Portraits producer Stacy Abramson hopes her project will scale back these numbers and push policy-makers and radio listeners to get beyond their stereotypes of young people in jail. “For people who don’t ordinarily come into contact with these kids, when they hear these stories, they know these are real people with real families who fall in love, who struggle,” she says. “It becomes harder for people to write them off.”
Abramson prodded her students, all of whom are peer counselors at the Academy, to ask their families and themselves some tough questions. “Those were some of the deepest and longest conversations I’ve had with them. They said things they’d never said to me before,” says Andre, who interviewed his girlfriend, sister and foster father.
That tactic also worked for Ariel Corporan, who, as a teenager, belonged to a gang, dealt drugs and spent three months at Rikers. With a microphone in hand, the 22-year-old says, “I asked my father why he walked out when I was eight months old, and I asked my mother how she felt when my stepfather was beating me.”
Working among white-collar professionals in lofts full of computers also offered some lessons. “They cared so much,” says Andre, who now uses digital recording software to record his own rhymes. “They could have been our voice for us, but they showed us how to put it together.”