Beth Schwartzapfel ’01 taped much of her new podcast Violation over 15-minute phone calls with Jake Wideman, an Arizona prison inmate.
There are challenges to prison podcasting: no privacy, lots of background noise, and a robotic voice cutting in at sensitive moments reminding the audience there is “one minute left!” before the line goes dead. But Schwartzapfel was used to dealing with prison regulations in her near-decade as a journalist with the Marshall Project, an investigative outlet covering the criminal justice system.
She endured the technical hassles because she wanted listeners to hear directly from Jake, a convicted murderer who was released in 2016 and sent back to prison for life less than a year later for allegedly violating his parole conditions. While Jake’s original crime is not in dispute, whether he has been treated fairly by the parole system—and what it says about our notions of justice and personal transformation—is the crux of the seven-part series coproduced with National Public Radio.
“A story like this really hinges on whether you think the speaker is credible or not,” Schwartzapfel says. “I think that giving people the opportunity to weigh that themselves means giving them the opportunity to hear him speak.”
The son of novelist and Brown Professor Emeritus of Africana studies and literary arts John Edgar Wideman, Jake was 16 in 1986 when he stabbed Eric Kane, a fellow teen lying asleep during a summer camp trip. By the time Jake was freed from prison, he believed he understood what led him to commit this seemingly inexplicable murder. Yet others, such as Kane’s parents, feel strongly that Jake will forever be a menace and has forfeited his right to live freely in society.
Schwartzapfel, who concentrated in English and initially worked in healthcare, had been fascinated with criminal justice stories since administering vaccines inside a Rhode Island prison system in the early 2000s. After transitioning to journalism she has focused on the outsized influence of unelected parole boards on incarcerated peoples’ lives. During a report for the Washington Post, she met Jake’s lawyer, who later reached out after Jake was sent back to prison.
As Schwartzapfel worked on the years-long reporting project that became Violation, the parents of Eric Kane went to extreme measures to reincarcerate Jake, and the Arizona parole board followed their will even when it appeared to go against existing policies. Sensitive to the still-raw grief of the Kanes, Schwartzapfel says the story is important to tell because of its larger implications about the criminal justice system: “At the end of the day, we have to feel comfortable that the system is doing what we want it to do, because it is doing it on our behalf.”