Editor’s Note: Names of the incarcerated youths in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.
A 17-year-old youth removed a pair of audio headphones and smiled as he stepped out of a San Francisco sound booth on a Wednesday afternoon. He had just recorded his first hip-hop song.
“Man, it’s warm in there!” he declared, fanning his dark-green T-shirt.
He likened the experience to a much-needed mental escape from his current circumstances.
“This is real helpful. It feels good. It kind of feels like I’m not really in jail,” the teen reflected. “I am, though.”
The teen has been an inmate at the Juvenile Justice Center since late February — his fourth time at the center.
The song he created is one example of an activity offered since December through a newly formed partnership between the Juvenile Probation Department and San Francisco-based nonprofit Sunset Youth Services.
The organization, which operates the youth-run music label UpStar Studios, has placed recording equipment in an empty unit at the juvenile center since December. Staff from the nonprofit visit the jail three times a week to record songs created by inmates.
So far, more than 30 young people have recorded songs from inside in the jail. “I was just expressing myself, saying what’s on my mind. Telling the truth,” the 17-year-old juvenile said of the song he recorded. He and other juveniles interviewed by The San Francisco Examiner were not identified because they are being held at the correctional facility.
Luis Recinos, director of the Juvenile Justice Center, said the partnership aligns with the center’s goal to give kids as many opportunities as possible while in custody. “Sometimes it takes a program such as this to spark something in them that changes the way that they want to live their lives,” Recinos said.
The recording equipment kept at the Juvenile Justice Center is one of Sunset Youth Services’ two mobile recording studios, which includes a portable sound booth and computer.
The mobile studios are also brought to San Francisco high schools for students to record music on their lunch breaks.
But professional-quality recording studios at the Sunset Youth Services center on Judah Street at 44th Avenue is where much of the music magic happens. There, in the brightly decorated facility, at-risk youths and young adults are offered hands-on experience recording, mixing, mastering, releasing, distributing and promoting their own music and videos.
Sunset Youth Services’ youth-run label UpStar Studios has even produced five albums that are annual compilations of the best work created by musically inclined, at-risk youths.
Through 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, moved forward last year to bring the music to the juvenile inmates.
The program at juvenile hall allows inmates to use the recording equipment three days a week.
“Kids from different units on different days [gather] to record with staff,” Dawn Stueckle said. “What we’re doing right now is giving kids an opportunity to just write their own songs and learn the gear.”
Another male inmate at the Juvenile Justice Center, age 16, has been using the mobile recording studio since it arrived late last year. Before he was in custody, the youth first learned of Sunset Youth Services at age 14 through a friend.
“I grew up kind of troubled, but I always tried to make it better,” the Mission native said. “I didn’t find an outlet up until I came to Sunset Youth Services, where I could finally express 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 chronicle his personal experiences leading up to his life at the juvenile facility.
“Even tho I’m looked down my name is said thru all my fans / Shot at but never ran and I made another year / three bullets hit my body but I still ain’t got a fear.”
“We want the kids to make music they’re proud of … but our goal is bigger than music,” Dawn Stueckle explained. “Music is the vehicle by which we can gain entry into their lives and begin to earn trust, and earn the right to journey with them and support them over the long haul.”
The 16-year-old juvenile said the Stueckles have made a positive impact on him. After a month of being incarcerated, he was relieved to learn the program would be coming to the jail.
“[When] I found out they were coming here, it just made everything easier for me. I got 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 jailed teens an outlet through the recording booth is evident.
“You could see on his face, relief,” she said, regarding the teen’s reaction to recording songs.
Programs help engage youth
While The City has strived for years to provide access to programs for youths and their families, the number of inmates at the Juvenile Justice Center has steadily decreased over the past five years following the opening of the renovated 150-bed facility in 2007.
The center exceeded capacity in spring 2008, when the number of incarcerated juveniles reached a population of 155. Chief Probation Officer Allen Nance said that number has declined since at least 2010.
Nance credits programs like Sunset Youth Services with helping to engage the teens and keep numbers down to 52 youths in custody, according to population numbers reported March 4.
The mobile recording studio is an example of an activity youths can participate in while incarcerated and continue pursuing after release, he said.
“We feel that part of our responsibility here in San Francisco juvenile hall and in the probation department is to expose young people to opportunities, to inspire them, to give them hope that there are things they can do that are prosocial [and] noncriminal,” Nance said.
The attitude in the probation department mirrors an overall shift in the approach of The City within the past decade to deflect teens from custody, according to Nance. All youths who are arrested in San Francisco, for instance, are first screened through a community assessment and referral center.
“San Francisco has been on the cutting edge, and pretty progressive, in finding ways to divert low-risk offenders from our juvenile justice system,” Nance said. “By the time a young person is referred here, it’s as a result of a serious, violent or chronic offense.”
Daniel Macallair, director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, said there’s been a “seismic shift” in the past decade in San Francisco’s juvenile justice system to open the doors to community-based programs like Sunset Youth Services.
“It is very different from what it was when I began here 28 years [ago],” Macallair said. “It’s one of those quiet victories that have happened.”
Recinos, the Juvenile Justice Center’s director, noted that a common misconception of the center is that adults are more prison guards than caretakers.
“That’s very far from accurate,” Recinos said. “Our relationship with the kids is very unique. If you treat [the kids] fairly and you really show true compassion, and interest in them, they respond accordingly.”
In that regard, Sunset Youth Services’ mobile recording studio is seen as a win-win for both the juveniles and the adults who supervise them. The studio gives the juveniles a chance to express their emotions through hip-hop, while providing a window for adults to gain additional perspective on the youths’ life circumstances.
“It brings out the beauty that people have and the passion that they really have to give,” the 16-year-old inmate said.