When Demancea “Dee” Starr launched his podcast in April, he had no doubt who he was trying to reach. OuttaDeeBox is, as far as he knows, the only podcast created specifically for currently and formerly incarcerated Wisconsinites.
Every two weeks, he records an interview in a studio he built in the basement of his Sun Prairie home. Some feature leaders of community organizations, while others feature people who have served or are currently behind bars. What matters, Starr said, is that they offer practical advice or inspiration to those navigating life in prison or on probation or parole.
He is also looking for new ways to highlight the talents of people in prison, such as by reading their poetry or playing their music on air. He is currently collaborating with his wife, Rocio Starr, who is planning an art show to showcase the inmates’ work.
That dual-purpose platform, he thinks, is key to reducing recidivism.
Starr, who also has a day job at the United Way of Dane County, grew up in Madison and studied audio engineering at the Madison Media Institute, hoping to one day work in radio. The podcast is his first foray into the field since then.
New episodes appear online every other Thursday at outtadeeboxradio.com and on all the usual podcast apps. Local listeners can catch the show on Sun Prairie’s KSUN/FM 103.5 every other Saturday at 1:30 p.m., and an abbreviated version airs on WORT/FM 89.9 every other Thursday at 5:30.
Starr spoke with Cap Times about what he hopes to accomplish with his podcast, why he won’t criticize the prison system, and why it’s so important to speak directly to those who have served time.
What personal experience made you want to create this podcast?
In my community, being incarcerated or on probation and parole is like a normal, everyday thing. I have a brother, I have friends, I have family who are currently or formerly incarcerated. So this is a normal thing for a person like me. And you just see so many talented people (who) just don’t get that look because they either have a background or they’re incarcerated now.
When I decided I wanted to do a podcast, I wanted it to fill a need. I wanted it to be educational, impactful and serve the community. That’s a tall order, but this one was near and dear to my heart, and I feel like a lot of people can relate to it.
What do you look for in your guests?
Everyone is different, so it just depends on their expertise. If they’re going to come in as a community leader, then we’ll base it around that. If they only come with life experience, we’ll base it around that. I think the main thing I’m looking for is honesty and a message. I want them to give the new generation a game, some wisdom, a different perspective.
What is your goal for the podcast?
My goal now is to send my podcast to all prisons. I have an application with the (Wisconsin) Department of Corrections right now to get on the podcast list so it can be on all the tablets in all the prisons in the state so I can talk directly to people and give and share with them. . I’m building a platform for them, so I want them to have access to it.
It’s on the radio, but not everyone has access to WORT. And I want them to be able to listen to it whenever they want and (go back) to get the information. So I’m just trying to do whatever they want me to do, make sure every little T is crossed so I can get on that podcast list for these people to hear it. It is important.
Tell me about some of the interviews you’ve done so far.
Cheryl Knox Church. She was a probation and parole officer for over 30 years. And I’m asking them questions like, “What are some of the pitfalls that you’ve seen? What can someone do to stay in their PO’s good graces?” She imparts a lot of wisdom on this. I had Dante Cottingham. He just turned 20-some years old and came home. I said, “What message can you give to the brothers and sisters who are still out there?”
It’s a completely clean podcast. We do not bash the Department of Corrections (DOC). If (a guest says) something crazy, I’ll cut it off. It won’t help anything and I don’t want to bother anyone. Once you’re in that kind of situation, you want people to focus on something positive to keep their mind moving in a positive direction.
We know a lot of things the DOC does wrong, but let’s try to highlight the things they do right. Many people say the system is broken. It is not broken. It’s working exactly as it should work, so we have to work differently, do things differently. Tupac said it best: “We have to change the way we eat, change the way we live, and change the way we treat each other. The old way didn’t work, so it’s up to us to do what we have to do to survive.”
Do you hear from people inside or people who have been released who are listening to the show?
Yeah a lot. People are writing, Facebooking and leaving comments saying, “We really appreciate what you’re doing.” Every time I talk to somebody, (they’re) like, “Hey, I have a brother, I have a cousin, I have a sister that I want you to interview.” It always is, because there are many people affected.
We have over 2 million people who are incarcerated in America, so you can throw a rock and say, “Hey, do you know anybody who’s ever been in jail or prison?” and they’ll be like, “Yeah, my brother, my cousin, my friend. Someone.”
How does it work when you interview someone who is currently in prison?
I just make them call. I have one that is from a prison phone conversation with Ivan Mitchell and John McGee. The part that says, “This call is from a facility…” I edited it so you just sound like I’m talking to someone on the phone.
People loved that interview, and their friends and family loved it. It gave (those guys) a sense of pride, like, “Hey, man, we have a voice. People care. They’re rooting for us.” That’s what I was saying in the interview: “Whether you’re here or not, you’re still somebody’s uncle. You’re still somebody’s brother. We love you guys and we support you guys.”
Do you think people aren’t getting enough of that message?
Yes. That was one of the reasons I started the podcast: to be a voice for the voiceless, as the forgotten people call them. Out of sight, out of mind, so when you’re gone for five, six years, life has to go on. Sending people money regularly, listening to their problems regularly – it’s hard to get people to support you when they’re in your face, let alone when you can’t see them, you can’t touch them. You have to drive two, three, four, five hours, worry and go through all the stress of it. It costs money, time, effort and energy. It’s easier to say, “I’ll see you when you go out.”
(Some people might say,) “Man, my brother can sing, so when he comes out, he’ll do this and that.” But he can still sing, so why not provide a platform for people to hear him sing, and he can still shine, so he’s not out there taking another chance or going bald from the stress?
Of all these people who are locked up, I think it’s about 90-some percent of these people who will come home one day. He will be your brother, he will be your neighbor. So why not give them something to do now, while they’re still there or when they first get home, so they don’t turn to crime? We have to do something.
What’s next for you and the podcast?
We’re making a movie called Slam, about four girls who come together and form a volleyball team and enter a tournament to win a cash prize to save their church. They don’t even know how to play volleyball. It will be shot here in Dane County by a local filmmaker named Rafael Ragland. They want me to play myself, a podcast host (because) they like what I’m doing and they want to help the platform in any way they can.
Also, EXPO (Ex-Incarcerated People’s Organization, an advocacy group working to end mass incarceration and discrimination against formerly incarcerated people) has a huge signature on their “Unlock the Vote” (petition) . They are looking for 50,000 signatures to submit by November to give people returning home on parole or parole the right to vote.
They are still human beings, they are still Americans, they should still be able to vote. People feel like they have no voice. Their freedom is taken from them, so it’s like you’re worthless. So I want to put that in there as well.