The voices of those who are imprisoned in the U.S. are often written off, but today Lemonada Media and Black Bar Mitzvah—a production company created by Insecure star Jay Ellis and Aaron Bergman— debuted their newest original podcast, “Written Off,” to center them.
Ellis spoke with ESSENCE about this new project, touching on how it’s personal to his own life. “I had some family members who have been incarcerated and in and out of the system and currently still in the system. Finding a way to work with those folks and give them a leg up, if you will, has always been something that’s been on my heart, but I didn’t necessarily know how I would ever do that,” he shared.
In each episode of this 13-part series, host Walter Thompson-Hernández interviews a formerly incarcerated young author. Influential creatives including John Legend, Issa Rae, Yvonne Orji, Randall Park, Keke Palmer, Karamo Brown, Julio Torres, and Jesse Williams will amplify these unheard voices by performing their work. As the tagline indicates, “These aren’t voices you’ve missed; they’re voices that haven’t been heard.”
Fortunately for some young creatives, Ellis has heard them and wants to share their talent more widely. “I was introduced to a writing class at Central Juvenile Hall at LA County, and I walked out one of the most humble people on the planet because I felt like I had heard some of the best writing I had ever gotten to witness, and it was from a 16-year-old, a 14-year-old, [a] 17-year-old,” the Insecure actor told ESSENCE. “It was wild! I know where my heart has been in this space, but I never thought it would come full circle into me being in a writing class and then helping those same writers get their voices out on a podcast.”
America incarcerates more of its population than anywhere in the world, including children. “We know that the United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities” states a 2016 Human Rights Watch report. Five years later, the statistics are still abysmal.
According to The Sentencing Project “almost 4,000 youth are incarcerated in prisons and jails.” Breaking down some of this data even further shows the disparities within these numbers due to the fact that, “[i]n every state, Black youth are more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, about five times as likely nationwide.” The impacts of this are clear—incarceration isolates young people from their families and loved ones, disrupts their education, frequently results in further exposure to violence and trauma, and impacts a young person’s development with “lifelong negative consequences” declares the ACLU.
In their press release, Lemonda co-founder Jessica Cordova Kramer shared that “Our commitment to creating platforms for the unheard drives us every day.” This commitment is clear when examining the creative choices for “Written Off.”
Host Walter Thompson-Hernández—a journalist, author, and 2021 NAACP Image Award-nominee—is intimately familiar with the criminal justice system as a former youth offender. He “believe[s] this series will help to drastically erase the stigma surrounding formerly incarcerated people…[and] hearing the stories, poems and art that our interviewees have shared speaks volumes to the idea that a criminal record shouldn’t erase any person’s humanity.” For Hernandez, “‘Written Off’ means going back to [his] early teenage self and reminding him that [he] was always more than what society perceived [him] to be.”
Additionally, all of the artwork created for the podcast is “by painter, Russell Craig, a self-taught artist who survived nearly a decade of incarceration after growing up in the foster care system,” according to a statement from Lemonada Media.
Ellis shared another positive of the podcast: “typically, people are not paid to be on a podcast, minus the host, and we actually paid all of our writers. They all own their work outright and have full 100% ownership of their pieces used on the podcast.” He is optimistic for “Written Off” to be a catalyst for new storytellers and a vehicle to elevate their writing.
“Don’t count out incarcerated or formerly incarcerated folks in the population,” he shared. “They are often overlooked or written off, but they are some of the most talented, smart, creative, singular points of view in a great way. These are people who often don’t get an opportunity and don’t get a chance, so don’t be afraid to give them an opportunity.”
Lemonada co-founder Stephanie Wittels Wachs also spoke with ESSENCE about her hopes for “Written Off”: “I want people to be touched. I want people to be moved. I want people to work towards not locking kids up. Selfishly, I want them to fall in love with the writers, and I want to keep doing more seasons of this and getting more voices out into the world…these are amazing stories of resilience and hope. Because you have people who did lose a lot of hope and felt like everything they knew has been stripped away from them, and then found a way out with their writing… It’s been a true labor of love, and we’re really, we’re really proud of it.”