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Edge Point: Protecting Youth vs. Supporting Youth Decisions

Social media like Bitstrips are often used by people to explore their identities. Because the youth in the program were incarcerated, there were limitations on how far these typical aspects of digital media could be publicly explored. Because the young adults are incarcerated, however, sometimes it seems that being in jail is the only thing they want to talk about. It is ever present and causes them to define who they are.

We always encouraged the youth not to use the reason why they were in jail as a subject matter or, if they did, to be vague about it. This was partly to protect them, as they were pre-trial, and if they revealed anything about their case, especially on the social space of the Internet, it possibly could be used against them in a court of law. Confidentiality about their charges was important. Another reason was to help them see themselves as part of a different future, one which had nothing to do with being in jail but, rather, being a productive member of society. 

However, it wasn’t always cut and dry regarding what they could and couldn’t say, or should and shouldn’t say, in regards to their lives as incarcerated youth. There wasn’t much precedent to reference in regards to using digital media in this manner within these two jails, much less any jail facilities. To complicate it further, some of the youth were 18 and over, rather than minors, who theoretically could give their permission to say or do what they wanted within reasonable boundaries, even if that meant referring to why they were in jail.

Throughout the project, we tried to remain cognizant of what the youth revealed about themselves without compromising either their identity or security. As we did not want to squash their ability to use digital media to represent themselves, this was often a fine line to tread. Laying down ground rules such as “choose a screenname that is not your real name”’ was something fairly easy to do and abide by. Most all of the participants knew what a screenname was and had already had one they used on sites such as YouTube or MySpace before they were incarcerated. Other times, the guys self-regulated themselves. During the session where they used GarageBand to come up with lyrics related to a critical choice, they found it difficult not to swear. Even though this wasn’t mentioned as a ground rule before they began free-styling, they immediately came to the conclusion we desired, that it wasn’t appropriate to incorporate swear words. Provided with the right opportunity and context it seems they could, at times, figure out an appropriate level of self-restraint and self-censorship.

But in the example below from Jail North, the over-18 participant decided to illustrate the reason why he was in jail. We found ourselves on the fine line of not wanting to squelch his creativity yet wanting to protect him from potential future ramifications. It did not show any violent crime and seemed to illustrate learning from his mistakes. We decided to ask if he was certain he wanted to do this. He said he was. At that point, as an adult, we decided we had to respect his decision.

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