Idit Knaan

Remember The Pain

This is a video I produced as my final project for the backpack video journalism class at American University's interactive journalism graduate program.

The backs of Michael Kemp's hands reflect the fragile balance that is his life. His right is inked "Remember The Pain," a reminder of the four years he spent in adult prisons, far from his native Washington, D.C. His right hand is decorated with "My Blessed Life," blessed because Michael, who was always told he would never make it to 18, is 22 years old.

Michael is one of roughly 200 D.C. teens sentenced as adults each year. D.C. doesn't have a prison system, so D.C. teens sentenced as adults are sent to prisons all across the U.S. (Advocates estimate there are D.C. youth serving adult prison terms in about 40 states at the moment.) They spend their formative young-adulthood years in adult prisons, far away from the District, with limited access to age-appropriate services and virtually no access to their families and communities. With little more than a bus ticket and a felony, they return from prison to face many obstacles in terms of housing, education and employment. Staying out of trouble becomes a battle against the odds.

In 2008, Michael lost that battle. Returning from a 15-month stint in adult prisons in Arkansas and Tennessee for a robbery he committed at 17, he was back in his hometown, his old neighborhood, for just over a month before being arrested and charged with possession of firearms. This time he was sent away for three years.

He returned to the District again in August 2011, determined to beat the odds and stay out of trouble — and out of prison, for good. Last April, Michael was hired by the recently reopened Howard Theatre. Working at the storied music venue serves as inspiration for the aspiring rapper and musician. He also advocates for youth tried as adults through his work with the Campaign for Youth Justice and Free Minds Book Club.

Read more about the issue of youth tried as adults on the Campaign for Youth Justice's website.

Original music by Brendan McGeehan.