After serving time, women serve public good with radio show about re-entry

Michelle Scales (left)

Michelle Scales (left)

From a small room in Center City, radio activist Vanessa Graber wants to broadcast the realities of post-prison life to thousands of Philadelphians.

WHYY is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented focus on the issues facing formerly incarcerated Philadelphians. The aim is to produce journalism that speaks, across the city and across media platforms, to the challenges and solutions for reentry.

From a small room in Center City, radio activist Vanessa Graber wants to broadcast the realities of post-prison life to thousands of Philadelphians.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Next week, PhillyCam, the public-access media nonprofit, will launch WPPM 106.5. It’s one of three new radio stations created following a grassroots push to carve out more slots on FM dials across the country.

Graber’s show — hosted by four women with rap sheets — is one of the programs that will air on the community-centric station, which will also reach parts of North and South Philadelphia, as well as across the river in Camden.

It’s believed to be the first radio show about re-entry that’s hosted by women ex-offenders.

vanessaPhillyCam producer Vanessa Graber (center) records a show about re-entry hosted by four ex-offenders. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“If there’s a way to use this radio program to show people that people who come out of prison are not scary, dangerous, violent, aggressive people … I think that would be a really positive outcome,” said Graber, who is also a consultant with PhillyCam.

On a sweltering Wednesday, the group sat around a low-slung black table inside the People’s Paper Co-op in North Philadelphia, an organization that works with former inmates. For now, they’re using the storefront space to prerecord a few episodes, but the goal is to eventually do a monthly live show in town.

‘Who better to speak?’

The vibe of the show is a bit like “The View” or “The Talk,” but less polished and without all the celebrity gossip.

During this taping, the women discussed conflict resolution, their dream houses and their definition of a strong woman.

“Being a strong woman means to stay focused, remain humble, teachable, never lose sight of where I can from, never lose sight of the journey. Being a strong woman means being independent, holding my own,” said Faith Bartley from a comfy, oversized chair, her arms hanging over one arm, her legs dangling over the other.

Bartley is a paid intern at the Peoples Paper Co-op. Rail thin with tight cornrows and an easy smile, she’s been out of prison for nearly a decade now.

faithFaith Bartley, 10 years out of prison, draws on her experiences. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Before that, she sold drugs along Germantown Avenue in North Philadelphia after serving in the Army — crack, marijuana, anything she could get.

Then she started using.

“I never stole anything from my mom or family members, but I stole their sleep,” said Bartley during a break. “She used to send my brother and sister into the crack houses I used to be in. I used to hide behind the door and say, ‘Don’t tell them I’m here.'”

Nothing changed until Bartley’s mom died. She found out from her brother, who spotted her wandering Roosevelt Boulevard and pulled over to deliver the news. Bartley said then, and only then, was she really ready to start a new chapter.

“My mom’s remains are cremated on my mantelpiece next to her mother. So, every day, I reach over on that box and pray and say, ‘Girls, I’m going out there, I’m going out there to do the right thing. I know you girls are proud of me,'” said Bartley.

The radio show on WPPN is just one more thing fueling Bartley these days. It keeps her on track by making her feel empowered. Empowered because she has a platform to reach women like her. Empowered because she’s drawing on her life experience to do it.

“Who better to speak about recidivism, being in the penal system, about coming home trying to start all over again — and I find myself back in it. I’m an expert at that,” said Bartley.

A place to breathe

Michelle Scales goes by “Miss Me” on the air. A bit more stone-faced than Bartley, she also did time after being arrested for drug trafficking. Scales now lives in a halfway house after going through detox. She’s been in treatment for more than a year.

Not surprisingly, life hasn’t been easy lately. Scales also has kids. But she said doing the radio show helps.

“It’s like when you have a sinus cold and you’re all clogged up. It’s like when I go in there, I can breathe,” said Scales.

michelleMichelle Scales huddles with her co-hosts around the microphones. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

And she’s feeling like a new person. She sees more in herself than she has in years.

“I know now I have the potential to do anything I put my mind to. That’s been so hard for me to say or to fathom in such a long time because I thought I was going to die high,” said Scales.

For Graber, the radio activist, that’s everything. Not only does she hope the show inspires listeners, she thinks recording the programs will prove how far Scales, Bartley and the others have come.

“Hopefully, these women will live in a house that they dream of and that that moment in time when they were struggling is recorded in history so they can look back on it and reflect and kind of see it as a sign of growth,” said Graber.

And perhaps encourage other women who have served time to speak up and do the same — even if it’s one listener at a time.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal