They can’t go to classes or prison jobs, and they don’t have tablets or televisions. But they do have radios.
by Keri Blakinger
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system.
As soon as I drive past the East Tempe Church on the outskirts of Livingston, Texas, I can hear the laugh track on my radio. It’s from “Martin,” a three-decade-old television sitcom. The fictional Detroiters’ racy wisecracks seem incongruous crackling through my car speakers on a winding country road.
When the laughter dies down, the slight Southern lilt of a DJ named “Megamind” cuts in to introduce the next segment.
“Bringing it to you room service-style,” he says, signing off with a catchphrase that’s a little bit tongue-in-cheek: Like most of his listeners, Megamind doesn’t have a room. He lives on a metal bunk in a maximum security prison, and his real name is Ramy Hozaifeh. To the men in the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, he is best known as a regular voice on 106.5 FM The Tank, the prison’s own radio station.
The Tank is so low wattage you can only hear it for a minute or two after you leave the parking lot. But the programming is as plentiful and varied as any commercial station on the outside, with shows covering everything from heavy metal to self-improvement. It’s all recorded in a studio hidden deep inside the prison and stocked full of equipment, most of which was donated by churches and religious groups. It doesn’t have the fame or following of San Quentin’s “Ear Hustle” podcast, but The Tank allows men on one of the most restrictive death rows in the country to have a voice that reaches beyond their cells. Usually—just like in most lockups—the prisoners at Polunsky are not allowed to write letters to each other. But for the radio station, the warden carved out an exception, allowing them to pass along essays and poems for the staff chaplains to deliver to Hozaifeh and his fellow DJs, affording the most isolated men in Texas a rare chance to be part of the prison community.
Every morning, Hozaifeh plays an episode of “Martin” or “Sanford and Son”—shows that still make sense for listeners who can’t see the action because they’re locked in a cell with no television. “You can listen to their clowns,” he said. “You don’t have to see them at all.”
Like most lockups, life in the roughly 3,000-man prison an hour and a half north of Houston is pretty bleak, especially for the high-security prisoners who spend most of their time in solitary. That includes a few hundred men isolated because they’re considered dangerous or in danger, but it also includes nearly 200 men on Texas’ death row. For years, the guys on the row have been disconnected from the prison’s general population. They can’t go to the mess hall or the chapel or the main yard, so most of the time they only meet their fellow prisoners in passing—like when janitors come by to mop or hand out towels. They can’t go to classes or prison jobs, and they don’t have tablets or televisions. But they do have radios.
The first time I heard about the station was from a man on death row named John Henry Ramirez. It was a week until he was scheduled to be executed, and I’d visited him to ask about his plea for prison officials to let his Baptist pastor lay a hand on him as he died. He answered my questions about his faith and whether he feared death, but what he really wanted to tell me about was the radio station.
“When you get out to the parking lot, you can just tune in, and you’ll hear,” he said. By the time I got back outside, he explained, I could catch the noon news update with the day’s menu.
“It’s become such a huge part of Polunsky,” he added. “You should hear all the people talk about it.”
• • •
The station started in early 2020, when Warden Daniel Dickerson arrived at Polunsky, and some prisoners approached him with a question: Would he let them start a radio station?
He’d been asked all sorts of strange questions in the 24 years he’d worked for the Texas prison system—but this one was a first. Still, he decided to hear the men out.
“When they explained it and what was going to be done—and of course everything’s pre-recorded, so it can be looked at and reviewed—it didn’t sound like a bad idea,” he said.
In his eyes, it seemed like a radio station could help give the men something to care about and connect with—especially when the prison was too short-staffed to expand their programming any other way. And in the early days of the pandemic, Dickerson said, it also seemed like a great way to help prisoners all across the facility understand what was going on, even those who couldn’t leave their cells.
“They may not all have TV, but most everybody has a radio,” Dickerson told me. “And anybody who’s been on a cell block knows some folks will turn the radio up loud enough where even if you didn’t have one, you’re probably going to hear it anyway.”
The first time he sat down in his office and tuned in, he did not regret it.
“It’s your own little prison city radio station,” he said, flashing a cock-eyed grin. “And you can walk around and see the change in people.”
Even as a visitor, I can see it, too. Usually when I interview men on death row, we talk about their cases or their upcoming death dates or the conditions they live in. But now, they rattle off the programming schedule they know by heart. There’s “Smooth Groove”—that’s R&B—on Sundays, then rap on Mondays and Latin music on Tuesdays. There’s a night for Megamind’s conspiracy theory show inspired by “Coast to Coast AM,” and a night for alternative music.
“My favorite show is the heavy metal show,” Ramirez said. It’s called “Tales from the Pit,” and the group of prisoners who host it refer to themselves as “pit chiefs” and their listeners as the “pit crew.” Lately, they’ve taken to referring to Ramirez as a pit chief, too, because he’s written to them so often, he’s become a part of the show.
In some ways, The Tank is like a community center for men who can never leave their cells. Aside from the music and the daily announcements, the DJs stream news and play soundtracks to movies. (The preferred genre is rom-coms, Hozaifeh confided—but “they really hate prison movies.”)
There are also religious services, a Biblical rap show, suicide prevention programs and stock tips from death row. Sometimes, the men interview each other, and once they interviewed the warden. When I visited in October, they interviewed me.
I’d been so drawn in by Ramirez’s enthusiasm during our conversation that I wanted to come back and see the station. The warden led me through a maze of walkways and hallways before we got to a tiny room buried inside the facility. From the outside, it looked like the door to a closet—but inside, the space was filled with sound equipment and computers. Except for the DJ’s white prison uniform, the scene could have been inside an upstart studio anywhere in the outside world.
When Hozaifeh hit record, we talked some about my life—how I ended up in prison myself and how I became a reporter afterward. But I’ve been covering prisons in Texas long enough that a lot of the guys already know these things about me, and some sent in more idiosyncratic questions ahead of time: What was your favorite thing on commissary? Do you like Madonna, Pearl Jam or Led Zeppelin? Pizza, steak or tofu?
From their cells and bunks, the men of Polunsky steer the interview. It’s an unlikely way to take some measure of control in the heavily regulated world of prison, and to hear their own words on the air at a station run by them and for them.
That’s been part of the attraction for Jedidiah Murphy, who’s been on death row for 20 years. Since he started listening to The Tank, he’s been writing in to Megamind’s conspiracy theory show regularly. Though the quirky content aligns with his interests, it’s not the main attraction: It’s the audience that doesn’t judge him by his past, because they all have pasts too.
“When you have people in prison that don’t even really CARE about the crime or the situation, that is something that many of us have not seen,” he wrote to me. “This is inmate-run for INMATES.”
The guys running the radio station understand how much that means. They’ve never been on death row, but many of them—including Hozaifeh—have been in solitary, too, and they know how disorienting the constant isolation can become.
“You just don’t know if you exist anymore,” Hozaifeh said. “It just kind of removes your humanity from you, and I think the radio has put that back in the equation.”
In September, a few days before Ramirez was to be executed for the 2004 killing of a store clerk, the guys who run the heavy metal show curated a playlist for him and played pre-recorded messages from his inside friends and outside supporters. The rap show read letters from listeners, recounting ways in which his contributions to the station had touched their lives.
As per usual, he tuned in—but this time he got to respond with his own voice. The day before Ramirez was scheduled to go to the death house, the warden made an unprecedented decision: He let the condemned man go to church. It was a special service outside, and there was a chain link fence between Ramirez and the choir from General Population—“GP”—but it was still a first for death row. Afterward, The Tank aired the best bits for the whole prison to hear.
When Ramirez spoke, he talked about his regrets and described how he cried as he watched his mother walk away from her final visit. But he also talked about the radio station, and how it had given him one last chance to be part of a community.
“I don’t know if y’all really understand how big that is because y’all in GP,” he told the other prisoners. “Look at how y’all all next to each other. Y’all posted up, y’all walking around, y’all touching each other. We ain’t got none of that. Y’all got community. We alone, we all by ourselves.”
Before long, he’d be going somewhere else alone, taking the last steps to his own death in a sterile room an hour away in Huntsville. “Do you know how big that is?” he asked. “From all that I took out of the world, all the negative I did, all the people I hurt...all that selfish carelessness that I did as an idiot little kid, now I got to pay for it as a man.”
As he talked, the men listening fell silent.
“For years now, the only thing I could do was make it about everyone else,” Ramirez continued, explaining how he poured himself into the station in the hope that he could leave behind something good to help other people.
“Because it’s important to me, man, it’s important to me and that’s all I can do. I’m alone. I’m alone in that cell. That’s all I can do is give you my words.”
One day later—on the night he was to be put to death—the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear his appeal, halting the execution. Now, while he waits for the justices to weigh in, Ramirez is back on the row and tuning into The Tank again, mailing Megamind his thoughts and contributions.
When I left from my October visit to the station, I headed off in the opposite direction from which I’d come, thinking of Ramirez and Hozaifeh and the little room filled with sound equipment. I flipped on my radio to 106.5 FM, and listened as Megamind pumped up his listeners, talking about faith and gratitude and finding ways to make meaning out of life behind bars. Just after I passed the Dollar General, his voice began to fade, replaced by the staticky words of a distant love song.
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