New music recording program brings relief to inmates at juvenile justice center

Editor’s Note: The names of the youths incarcerated in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

A 17-year-old took off a pair of audio headphones and smiled as he emerged from a San Francisco sound booth on a Wednesday afternoon. He had just recorded his first hip-hop song.

“Man, it’s hot in there!” he said, fanning his dark green T-shirt.

He likened the experience to a much-needed mental escape from his current situation.

“It’s really helpful. It feels good. I feel like I’m not really in jail,” the teenager said. “I am, though.”

The teenager has been held at the Juvenile Justice Center since late February – his fourth time at the centre.

The song he created is an example of an activity offered since December through a newly formed partnership between the Juvenile Probation Department and Sunset Youth Services, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization.

The organization, which operates youth-run music label UpStar Studios, has placed recording equipment in an empty unit at the juvenile center since December. Staff from the non-profit organization visit the prison three times a week to record songs created by inmates.

So far, more than 30 young people have recorded songs from inside the prison. “I was just expressing myself, saying what I thought. Speaking the truth,” the 17-year-old said of the song he recorded. He and other minors interviewed by The San Francisco Examiner have not been identified as they are being held in the correctional facility.

Luis Recinos, director of the Juvenile Justice Center, said the partnership aligns with the center’s goal of giving children as many opportunities as possible while in custody. “Sometimes it takes a program like this to trigger something in them that changes the way they want to live their life,” Recinos said.

High-end studios

The recording equipment kept at the Juvenile Justice Center is one of two Sunset Youth Services mobile recording studios, which includes a portable sound booth and a computer.

Mobile studios are also being brought to high schools in San Francisco for students to record music during their lunch breaks.

But the professional-grade recording studios at the Sunset Youth Services Center on Judah Street at 44th Avenue are where much of the music magic happens. There, in the brightly colored facility, at-risk youth and young adults are offered hands-on experience recording, mixing, mastering, broadcasting, distributing and promoting their own music and videos. .

UpStar Studios, the youth-run label of Sunset Youth Services, has even produced five albums that are annual compilations of the best works created by at-risk, musically inclined youth.

Speaking with teens at the Sunset District Center — many of whom are on probation — Dawn and Ron Stueckle, who co-founded what would become Sunset Youth Services in 1992, stepped forward last year to bring music to young inmates.

The juvenile hall program allows inmates to use recording equipment three days a week.

“Children from different units on different days [gather] to check in with the staff,” Dawn Stueckle said. “What we’re doing right now is giving kids the opportunity to write their own songs and learn the material.”

Another Juvenile Justice Center inmate, 16, has been using the mobile recording studio since arriving late last year. Before being incarcerated, the youngster first heard about Sunset Youth Services at the age of 14 through a friend.

“I grew up a bit troubled, but always tried to improve myself,” the Mission native said. “I found no outlet until I arrived at Sunset Youth Services, where I was finally able to vent all my anger.”

The 16-year-old participated in an internship at Sunset Youth Services before being hired as a studio technician, specializing in beat production.

His lyrics recount his personal experiences leading up to his life in the juvenile facility.

“Even though I’m despised, my name is said by all my fans / I was shot at but I never ran and I did another year / three bullets hit my body but I didn’t I’m still not afraid.”

“We want kids to make music they’re proud of…but our goal is bigger than the music,” Dawn Stueckle explained. “Music is the vehicle through which we can enter their lives and begin to gain trust, and earn the right to travel with them and support them for the long haul.”

The 16-year-old said the Stueckles had a positive impact on him. After a month of incarceration, he was relieved to learn that the program was coming to prison.

“[When] I found out they were coming here, it made everything easier for me. I was able to let out a lot of my anger, a lot of my frustrations, through this program,” he said.

Dawn Stueckle said the benefit of giving imprisoned teenagers an outlet via the check-in booth is obvious.

“You could see the relief on his face,” she said, of the teenager’s reaction to the song recording.

Programs help engage youth

While the City has worked for years to provide access to programs for youth and their families, the number of inmates at the Juvenile Justice Center has steadily declined over the past five years since the facility opened. renovated with 150 beds in 2007.

The center exceeded capacity in the spring of 2008, when the number of incarcerated minors reached a population of 155. Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance said that number had been declining since at least 2010.

Nance credits programs like Sunset Youth Services with helping engage teens and keeping the number of young people in custody at 52, according to population figures reported March 4.

The mobile recording studio is an example of an activity young people can take part in while incarcerated and continue after release, he said.

“We believe that part of our responsibility here at San Francisco Juvenile Hall and in the probation service is to expose young people to opportunities, to inspire them, to give them hope that there is things they can do that are prosocial. [and] non-criminal,” Nance said.

The probation service’s attitude reflects a global shift in The City’s approach over the past decade to diverting teenagers from detention, according to Nance. All young people who are arrested in San Francisco, for example, are first examined by a community assessment and orientation center.

“San Francisco has been on the cutting edge and quite progressive in finding ways to divert low-risk offenders from our juvenile justice system,” Nance said. “When a young person is referred here, it is following a serious, violent or chronic offence.

Daniel Macallair, director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said there has been a “seismic shift” over the past decade in San Francisco’s juvenile justice system to open doors for community programs like Sunset Youth Services.

“It’s very different from what it was when I started here at 28 [ago]”, Macallair said. “It’s one of those quiet victories that happened.

Recinos, director of the Juvenile Justice Center, noted that a common misconception of the center is that adults are more prison guards than wardens.

“That’s very far from accurate,” Recinos said. “Our relationship with children is very special. If you treat [the kids] fairly and you really show genuine compassion and care about them, they react accordingly.

In this regard, Sunset Youth Services’ mobile recording studio is seen as a win-win solution for both minors and the adults supervising them. The studio gives young people a chance to express their emotions through hip-hop, while providing adults with a window to gain additional perspective on the circumstances of young people’s lives.

“It brings out the beauty that people have and the passion that they really have to give,” the 16-year-old inmate said.

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