by Steve Horn
A Wisconsin state prisoner is leading the way in getting a new podcast out to the public that covers issues faced by people behind bars. Podcasts are radio-style audio series that can be downloaded and played on computers or smartphones.
Dant’e Cottingham, held at the Jackson Correctional Institution in Black River Falls, co-founded a podcast called Incarcerate US with his fiancée, Julie Cottingham. Julie, who is not in prison, serves as creative producer for the show; she told Prison Legal News that they both hope the podcast can shine a light on major issues in carceral facilities, which can eventually lead to reforms.
“[Dant’e] believes wholeheartedly that there is a way to prevent other teens from following in his footsteps and he knows through experience that there is a more effective way for the criminal justice system to deal with teens/other citizens,” Julie stated, noting that the 40-year-old Dant’e had been imprisoned since age 17. “He’s a passionate prison reform activist who believes that telling the stories of mass incarceration is vital to prison reform.”
In an interview with PLN, Dant’e said a major part of his motivation for starting Incarcerate US is that he saw a void in radio media coverage of issues facing prisoners. He has been able to record interviews for the show because, ironically, the prison system records phone calls and he uses those recordings as the audio for his podcasts.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections was not enthused about its recorded calls being used as material for a prisoner’s podcast. In response, the department made changes to prohibit Dant’e from accessing the recordings, implementing a policy in which recordings can only be used for law enforcement-related purposes. He also was disciplined and placed in solitary confinement for 11 days, and subjected to a 20- to 30-day ban on making phone calls as punishment for producing the show.
“I’ll say this, when they found out about my podcast, they actually put me in the hole, they investigated it, and when I was down there it was being investigated, the white shirt, the captain that was doing the investigation told me, he said that this is genius,” Dant’e informed PLN. “He said, ‘That’s a great idea and I don’t even think there’s a policy against it.’ He said we might even have to, this might end up creating a cutting edge policy.”
Dant’e added that despite facing harsh penalties for producing Incarcerate US, he believes it comes with the territory of telling the truth and challenging the powers-that-be.
“You know how it goes,” he stated. “You’ve been in the business for a while and once you become outspoken about issues, if you kind of put a spotlight on them, you kind of put a target on yourself and that’s kind of essentially what’s going on here.”
Dant’e Cottingham has played host to 25 episodes of his podcast. Due to the backlash from prison officials, he has since moved into more of a director and producer role for the show, helping select guests and writing questions that can be asked by other hosts. According to Julie, the other hosts are previous guests on the podcast who are not incarcerated.
“No matter what happens, no matter what they do, the stories of mass incarceration are so important that they need to be told,” Dant’e explained. “It’s the only way to shed a light on it, I believe, and that’s why I started doing the first show.”
Prisoners cannot currently listen to the podcast, Julie noted, but she is working on making that possible. In the meantime, it can be accessed on https://incarcerateus.com, on YouTube and on podcast hosting platforms such as Spotify, Stitcher and Spreaker. It airs once a week.
“Not being able to speak for yourself is frustrating and when you are fighting for your life it’s your strongest tool,” Julie said, regarding the ethos behind Incarcerate US. “We are not just a podcast. We are a platform, we are the speakers and we have given the volume control to the incarcerated population through the power of the sound of their voices.”
The failure of the mainstream media to adequately report on criminal justice-related issues played a large part in Incarcerate US’s existence, she added.
“Most of the subjects we have covered have been the true life experiences of people formerly incarcerated who went on to improve not only their own life but the lives of others,” Julie said. “In the future we hope to bring the stories of the incarcerated in their own words and their own voice. Once convicted of a crime, the media loses interest and we want to fill that void and expose the truth of who is behind bars, why they are there and the injustices they endure on a daily basis.”
Lacking Internet access, Dant’e must rely on Julie to perform research for him and relay the results over the phone. He then writes questions for each podcast based on the information she provides, and she gives the questions to hosts who conduct the interviews.
“I’ll be directing for a while, as long as I have people to work with, and as long as there are stories to tell,” Dant’e said. “And I’ll continue to believe that that’s my job. I enjoy the process and I’ll continue to interview with these brave people and to tell these stories. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Dant’e goes up for parole in 2020 and has his fingers crossed that it will be granted. He hopes to continue doing the show, noting his podcast has already been downloaded more than 4,000 times.
Incarcerate US launched almost simultaneously with another prisoner-produced podcast at California’s San Quentin State Prison, called “Ear Hustle.” [See: PLN, March 2018, p.25].
Unlike Incarcerate US, however, that show is sanctioned by prison officials and has been touted by the facility, as opposed to facing a backlash. Prisoners at San Quentin also create radio segments that are aired on the San Francisco radio station KALW-FM, known as San Quentin Radio and formerly dubbed the San Quentin Prison Report. Other correctional facilities have produced radio shows, such as KLSP at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola – though podcasts created by prisoners are a new development.
Sources: www.kalw.org, https://incarcerateus.com, www.incidecdcr.ca.gov, www.kalb.com
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