Radio broadcasts aimed at prisoners are an uncommon media phenomenon in the United States. For prisoners incarcerated far from home with limited language skills and resources it can represent the only lifeline to family and the world outside the walls. Its importance is magnified for prisoners in segregation--especially those in super segregation who are allowed only limited contact with any other human beings. For them, it can be a lifeline to sanity and a reminder that someone cares about them even if their entire environment has been structured to give them the opposite message.
Prison radio shows vary across the nation. Some feature nothing more than “shout outs,” the radio announcer reading a brief greeting to specific prisoners during a show that features music or perhaps a gospel message. The best-known prison radio show is hosted by Ray Hill on Pacifica station KPFT-FM at 90.1 MHz in Houston, Texas. That Friday night show--which reaches about one-fifth of the approximately 156,000 Texas prisoners--features an hour of talk about prison-related topics, often with guests from the criminal justice system, followed by an hour or more of phone-in messages from families and friends of Texas prisoners. As a rule, prison radio shows are broadcast once a week. The exception that proves this rule is the prison radio station KLSP-FM, 91.7 MHz, which is broadcast from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
KLSP started in 1987 after prominent televangelist Jimmy Swaggart donated old equipment from his radio network to the prison. In 2001, Chuck Colson, who founded Prison Fellowship Ministries after serving time for his part in the Watergate scandal, came to Angola along with executives from a South Carolina Christian radio station. Broadcasting from Angola, they raised $120,000 for new equipment that allowed an expansion to 20 hours a day of broadcast time and an in-crease in broadcast power. Even so, the station’s 100 Watts barely allow it to reach beyond the more than 18,000 acres of prison farm.
All of the music played on KLSP is donated and censored by prison officials who eliminate negative, violent or sexual lyrics as well as gangsta rap and heavy metal. Most of the music is gospel, but for a salary of 20 cents an hour, the station’s six DJs also spin a unique blend of blues, hip hop, bluegrass, rock, cajun, oldies and local music. Once an hour, there is a five-minute news broadcast via satellite from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and many famous Christians have been interviewed live at the station, including former heavyweight champ George Foreman and evangelist Kenneth Copeland.
Warden Burl Cain sees the station as integral to rehabilitation of the 5,100 prisoners at Angola where the average sentence is 89.9 years and few prisoners have a chance of making parole and most will die in captivity.
“Our greatest challenge is to give hope where there is hopelessness,” he said. “This radio station helps do that -- it beams out positive information, positive gospel music, even gospel rap.”
On the other side of the prison radio spectrum are stations that allow “shout outs” during shows aimed at prisoners. One example of this is KKHT, 100.7-FM in Houston’s “Zeke and Grandma Show,” in which lively talk and gospel music is interspaced with “shout outs” to specific prisoners.
When 58-year-old Jose Masso began his “Con Salsa” show on WBUR-FM, 90.9 MHz in Boston in 1975, he envisioned it as a salsa music show and Spanish-language community forum. He began reading brief messages from prisoners’ relatives and the show gained a new purpose--to help community members maintain a connection with family and friends behind bars. “Con Salsa” is aired between 10 p.m. Saturday and 3 a.m. Sunday and can be received in most of Massachusetts, parts of Connecticut and southern New Hampshire.
Art Lahoe, 83, has been a DJ since the 1940’s. His current oldies and R&B music show, “Art Lahoe Connection,” is aired Sunday nights and syndicated on 13 commercial stations in California, Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona. Like Masso, Lahoe can’t remember exactly when the “shout outs” began, but knows that dedication requests, often to prisoners, come in “at least once every minute” of the show.
The granddaddy of all prison radio shows, hosted by Ray Hill in Houston, experienced a similar evolution. Hill helped found KPFT in 1968 before he was convicted of 20 burglaries and sent to prison. He says that the radio station “fed his head” the whole time he was in prison. Upon his release in 1973, Hill started the show as an hour of chat on prison poli-tics. One fateful day, a woman called in from roadside. She had a son in prison and had saved her money for a long time to be able to drive down for a visit. On the way, she had an accident and wouldn’t be able to make it. She knew her son listened to the show, so she asked Hill to tell her son that she couldn’t make it this time, but she loved him. Hill told her, “Ma’am, he’s listening, so why don’t you just go ahead and tell him yourself.”
That “tiny lady’s voice full of anxiety, fear and frustration,” and backed up with highways sounds went out across the air and tore at the hearts of listeners. From then on, the phone lines at KPFT were jammed with people wanting to pass on a message to prisoners and the current format of “The Prison Show” was born.
“We call KPFT ‘Keeping Prison Families Together,’” says Hill.
To some, the success of the show is surprising. In the Bible Belt State of Texas where most prisoners try to out-macho one another, Hill is openly gay, a recovering alcoholic and promotes an unwavering anti-gang message. Some-times prisoners take issue with him. Hill’s attitude is “that’s O.K., they can tune into the straight or pro-gang prison shows,” knowing full well that there are none.
The greatest challenge to Hill’s show may come from a development he lobbied for--the introduction of prisoner phones into the Texas prison system. When asked whether the phones will make his show obsolete, Hill noted that there will still be thousands of prisoners in segregation, close custody and medium security who will not have access to phones. He intends to limit future phone calls to people sending messages to those prisoners, but anticipates continued need for his show in the future.
In 2006, Rice University film professor Brian Huberman produced a 60-minute documentary on The Prison Show which played to favorable reviews. That, a full-show segment of Ira Glass’s “This American Life,” and Hill’s one-man play called “Ray Hill: The Prison Years,” which played around the country make “The Prison Show” the most famous of all prison radio shows.
But, there is competition for that distinction. The Thousand Kites Project of WMMT-FM and Appalshop in Whiteburg, Kentucky is a national project to both raise awareness of the public about prison issues and send prisoners nationwide the message that they are not forgotten. Amelia Kirby and Nick Szuberla, co-hosts of the only hip-hop radio show in the re-gion, became involved in prisoner issues when, in 1998, they started receiving hundreds of letters from prisoners transferred from distant cities to two new super max prisons in the region. The letters described racism and human rights violations in the prisons. Their response was to raise public awareness with radio broadcasts for prisoners’ families and artistic events bringing local musicians together with urban hip-hop artists. The Thousand Kites Project sponsors the Calls From Home radio broadcast which, once a year, airs messages from the public to prisoners on over 200 radio stations nation-wide.
California’s Prison Radio Project of The Redwood Justice Foundation seeks to frame prison issues in a human rights context and is broadcast on many community service stations. Noelle Hanrahahn, the show’s host, has also been involved in a number of non-broadcast projects intended to publicize prison issues, including the publication of Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the USA, a recent book by Mumia Abu-Jamal.
In Portland, Oregon, KBOO-FM’s Prison Pipeline advocates for prison reform while keeping listeners informed about criminal-justice legislation, news from prison-related programs such as C.U.R.E. and Books for Prisoners. It also airs interviews with agency officials, film producers, authors, former prisoners and prisoners’ families on prison-related topics such as the difficulties families of prisoners face and the obstacles to successful reintegration of former prisoners into society.
The U.K.’s Ministry of Justice is funding a radio service to send messages and educational programming to the 81,748 prisoners incarcerated in England and Wales to the tune of 2 million pounds, bringing an international flair to prison radio. The opposition decries the move as a placebo for the worst prison overcrowding in the history of the Prison Service. Certainly the overcrowding should be dealt with, but, if the American experience is any measure, prison radio is a good idea regardless of the amount of crowding in the prison system.
Sources: Mother Jones Magazine, Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, Houston Chronicle, kpft.org, New York Times, women.timesonline.co.uk, news.bbc.co.uk, www.thousandkites.org, www.prisonradio.org, kboo.fm, www.consalsa.org, www.theprisonshow.org
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