Young people find a future of redemption through ‘Written Off’ podcast — after time behind bars

By Jenna Kagel

The new podcast “Written Off” highlights poems and stories by formerly and currently incarcerated young people. They’re affiliated with InsideOUT Writers, an LA-based nonprofit that teaches creative writing to people who have been in and out of the criminal justice system, using literary arts to help keep them out of it for good.

The podcast is hosted by multimedia journalist Walter Thompson-Hernández, created and produced by Lemonada Media, and includes pieces read by actors and musicians like John Legend, Issa Rae and Keke Palmer. It’s the brainchild of “Insecure” actor Jay Ellis, who has taught Inside OUT Writers (IOW) courses. 

Ellis got involved with the program through his producing partner, Aaron Bergman, who was a teacher. “I watched him teach a class and he taught a class to about six or seven young men. … He used this prompt that they could easily relate to. And it was from Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN’ album, it was a song called ‘I.’ And they stood up one by one and read their stories, and it was powerful.” 

He adds the kids realized how smart they were by reading their own stories. "That got me hooked. From then on, I was like, ‘I have to be a part of this anyway I can.’”

Actor Jay Ellis says that the program InsideOUT Writers shows participants “the freedom of storytelling and the power of giving a voice agency.” Photo courtesy of Jay Ellis.

Ellis says the program can help the participants reevaluate how the world sees them and how they see themselves. “What IOW often sees with these young folks is that they know they have potential, and they know that they want to do something with their lives, [but] they know that there is a system that looks at them in another way. And for us, it’s about, ‘All right, your voice is the only voice that matters right now in this moment, so say whatever it is that you want to say.’” 

He adds that there is a freedom in storytelling and power in giving a voice agency. “That is truly the power of watching folks take control of their own life — is giving them the agency to use their own voices and to speak for themselves, and to communicate and express themselves.”