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David Inocencio works with a young staffer inside a busy newsroom
David Inocencio, left, in the Pacific News Service office with a young colleague named Rasheeda. (Photo by Joseph Rodriguez)

This story is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.

Editor’s note: Brooklyn-based photographer Joseph Rodriguez has spent decades documenting the lives of young people in detention. His images for this story were taken in 1999 and digitized for The Imprint and Prison Journalism Project from archival negatives.

For nearly three decades, young people in juvenile halls around the San Francisco Bay Area have waited anxiously for David Inocencio to show up on their units with copies of The Beat Within.

They’re eager to see their bylines — printed in 7.5-point font to fit as much text as possible into the magazine’s 72 pages — and to read each other’s writing. A typical edition of the twice-monthly publication written and illustrated by incarcerated youth brims with ambition, grief, hope, remorse and longing for life outside jail walls.

David Inocencio and his dog sit outside Pacific News Service offices in San Francisco.
David Inocencio and his dog, T-Shirt, outside Pacific News Service offices in San Francisco. (Photo by Joseph Rodriguez)

The latest edition is an unusual one. It pays tribute to the remarkable legacy of the magazine’s founder, Inocencio, who died on July 8 of an aggressive kidney cancer. He was 59. Friends and family, as well as the countless young people he worked with over his 27 years as editor of The Beat Within, are mourning his death.

The Beat Within model is based on the belief that writing and conversation go hand in hand. Inside juvenile detention centers, workshop facilitators share writing prompts with the group — everything from “What was your favorite thing to do in the summer?” to “What would you have to change in your life to stay free?” Then they wander the room, drawing out the responses in verbal exchanges that evolve into words on the page. Every piece that is submitted is published in the magazine. 

“David provided me with the first meaningful outlet for my remorse, and gave me a positive outlet for my pain,” one former youth contributor wrote. “I love David for that; may his legacy endure as long as society criminalizes the children.”

‘We are pressing on’

Launched in 1996 as a newsletter written from San Francisco’s Youth Guidance Center, The Beat Within now reaches across the state and country. Thousands of detained youth attend writing workshops each year in a dozen California counties, as well as adults housed at San Quentin State Prison and the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla. Outside California, The Beat Within circulates among contributors in Louisiana, Montana and New Mexico. The organization also offers workshops to youth in foster care, homeless shelters and alternative schools.

A longtime San Franciscan who grew up in Daly City, Inocencio began his career as a counselor at the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department, and later directed the diversion program at the nonprofit Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Inocencio launched what contributors refer to as “The Beat” when he was working at Pacific News Service as education director for its Youth Outlook news magazine*. In 2013, The Beat Within became an independent organization. 

In his final weeks, Inocencio remained optimistic, those close to him say, signing emails with: “The Beat goes on.” The small team tasked with the responsibility is now working to ensure that it does. 

The publication is backed by San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts and receives funding from individual donors and private foundations. It has contracts with county probation departments and community-based agencies across the Bay Area, which staff say they are fully equipped to honor. 

“We are pressing on,” said Lisa Lavaysse, Inocencio’s wife and colleague at The Beat Within, where she is now executive director. “It’s a great comfort to get back to work. I know that this is what David would want us to do.”

A journalistic gift 

The depth and constancy of Incocencio’s commitment comes up frequently among those who knew him. Many described years or even decades of correspondence while they were locked up in youth or adult prisons, and well after their release. Still others credit Inocencio with giving them their first jobs on the outside. 

Russell Morse, 42, a writer and justice advocate with a master’s of fine arts in creative nonfiction from New York University, met Inocencio in 1997 when Morse was a “sad, lonely, angry” kid on B1 — the unit for the youngest kids at San Francisco’s juvenile hall.  The first time Morse attended a Beat Within workshop, his main goal was to get out of his cell for an hour. Inocencio spotted the new kid, walked over, and struck what Morse called “the classic Beat Within pose: You don’t pull up a chair, you just squat down next to the desk.”

Staffers working at the Beat Within
From left, a young woman, Carlos, Pee Wee and Beat staffer Cliff Parker at work in 1999. (Photo by Joseph Rodriguez)

Inocencio had “a journalistic gift for keeping people talking about themselves and being really interested in what they were saying,” Morse recalled. “Jail is all about time — doing time, how much time you have left — and the sad thing is that the longer you’re there, the less time people on the outside have for you.” 

Inocencio was different, Morse said. “Dave always had time.”

Like a number of young people who connected to The Beat Within while they were locked up as teenagers, Morse went on to work for the organization after he was released, at one point conducting weekly workshops in every unit of the San Francisco Youth Guidance Center.

“There was no agenda. Young people in a Beat Within workshop feel like ‘They’re here for us and not anything else,’” Morse said. “That’s why it’s lasted so long and that’s why I think it will last a lot longer.”

Transformational relationships

Managing editor Simone Zapata, who started working as a volunteer in 2012, has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and appreciation that followed news of Inocencio’s passing. 

“It’s a real testament to how far and how deep The Beat has spread into people’s lives throughout the years,” she said. The relationships built during the weekly workshops are “transformational not only for the young people but also for our volunteers,” Zapata said. “You’re accessing a depth with these young people that you wouldn’t otherwise if you were not engaging with their writing on a weekly basis.”

The tribute issue is filled with evidence of this transformation. In poems, letters, and short essays, workshop participants past and present describe the power of both the magazine and the man who founded it. 

“Despite the oftentimes awful crimes we committed, The Beat Within helped nurture the notion that we still had a place at the table. We were still loveable,” wrote a longtime contributor who signed his name as Kevin. “Your life’s work, your passion for seeing the lost and wandering, saved lives.”

Mourning a mentor and friend

Writer Michael Kroll, the Beat’s longest-standing facilitator, estimates he has helped lead more than 8,000 workshops over the decades. When Inocencio became ill, the 80-year-old Kroll took over his workshops in Marin, Santa Rosa and San Mateo counties.

It’s a lot of driving, he said. “But the minute I get into the workshop and start talking with the kids, I love it.”

When Kroll joined The Beat in 1996, it was a different era. California held more than 10,000 young people in state-run youth prisons. County juvenile detention facilities were overflowing and exaggerated fears of crime permeated the public discourse and drove public policy. Today, the state youth prison system has shut down completely, county juvenile halls are running well below capacity, and state politicians are more likely to call for supporting youth in the community than for increasing punitive sanctions. 

Mervyn Wool, 40, met Inocencio inside the Youth Guidance Center in 1995, at the height of the crackdown on juvenile crime. An immigrant from China who dropped out of school in seventh grade, Wool’s English was limited, and the first piece he wrote was two sentences long. But seeing his words in print along with a note of encouragement from the facilitators “was a very proud day,” Wool said.

Wool was transferred to the youth prison system formerly known as the California Youth Authority, where he continued to mail Inocencio writing throughout his four-year stay. The day he was released, he borrowed a cell phone and called Inocencio from the gate.

“Dave, I’m out, I need a job,” Wool recalled saying.

When Wool showed up the next day at the Pacific News Service office on Market Street, people he had never met greeted him by name. He found it unsettling, until he realized they knew him through his writing. 

“That was a great feeling,” he said.

Wool, recently a senior manager at a Bay Area-based freight company, led workshops in the years after his release and now plans to volunteer again. 

“It’s really important to allow someone to relieve their inner feelings,” he said, “and show the world that they are not this person their record labels them as.” 

Inocencio is survived by his adult daughter Liberty Inocencio, his parents David Sr. and Carol Inocencio; his brother Paul Inocencio and sister-in-law Julie, and their children Maceo, Mia and Alani. The family requests donations be made through The Beat Within website, here.

Note:The author of this piece was an editor in the 1990s for Youth Outlook magazine.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Nell Bernstein is a freelance journalist based in California’s East Bay.