At this prison radio station, inmates tell their stories in their own words
By Elaine Tassy, CPR News
Given a chance to pick even a small piece of the soundtrack for this part of his life, Limon Correctional Facility prisoner Herbert Alexander knew just what to choose: Bryson Tiller’s “Exchange.”
“I start reminiscing, yeah … Next time around, I want it to be different, yeah, Lord, please save her for me, do this one favor for me …”
Alexander, 46, is about halfway through a 24-year sentence for aggravated robbery. He has a shot at parole as soon as January of 2024, and, with the opening of the state’s first prison radio station, he has already gotten a chance at choosing the music he said reflects where he is.
The song, a Top 40 hit for Tiller in 2016, particularly evokes a time for Alexander when his wife was hospitalized with Lupus, and, Alexander, locked up in Limon, could only support her through phone calls.
“There’s just certain parts of the song that relate to my life and what happened, while I was in here at one time and had a really bad season,” Alexander recalled. “She was hospitalized. So there’s this part where it says, ‘Lord please save her for me, this one favor for me,’ you know? So that kind of like, hits me on the soft spot.”
The station launched earlier this month with the help of the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative. It is broadcast from men’s prisons in Limon and Sterling, and Denver’s Women’s Correctional Facility.
The station, broadcast over the internet, gives inmates a chance to listen to music that often inspires them during times of boredom, loneliness and lack of human interaction, some inmates said. The lineup begins at 5 a.m., with a music broadcast that bills itself as, “The first statewide morning music show in the U.S. by and for people in prison, hosted by your favorite Inside Wire DJs.”
Other shows, which inmates can tune into on the TVs in their cells and which non-incarcerated people can hear on an app on their phones, include “Jam & Toast,” a weekend morning music show; “Inside Wire Hotlines,” which is an audio bulletin board that airs three times a day with announcements; “Behind the Mic,” which profiles prison residents and staff; and “Wired Up,” which allows inmates to produce original audio features that provide glimpses of life behind prison walls.
Programming is also set to include conversation about facility programs, legislative updates that affect prisoners, audio postcards about life inside a facility, and “Up to the Minute with Dean Williams,” a conversation between prison residents and Williams, the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. He showed up to support the launch last week.
“When I talk to the men and women running this radio station, we have been developing an environment, a culture of responsibility for them and making sure that they take responsibility for what is being created here and what they have created. We have created this thing, this small child, this baby that we are holding and no one gets to drop the baby,” Williams said.
He sounded uninhibited about submitting to questions for “Up to the Minute,” adding, “They know that they can ask me difficult questions, but there has to be dignity and respect and an expectation of honesty and transparency,” he said.
Prisoners were given an opportunity to decide what to call the station, and what programs to create. They could be heard in a mini-documentary about the project discussing why they chose to call it ‘Inside Wire.’ The word “inside” was used with several meanings: being inside the prison walls, being inside one room for 23 hours if they are in solitary confinement, and what they are feeling inside, which is often not a welcome or highly encouraged disclosure.
The term “wire” was selected as a way to describe how prisoners communicate with each other sometimes surreptitiously by sending “wires,” notes prisoners slide under gaps in doors to each other, sometimes attached to thread they had pulled from their underwear.
It’s something, inmates and staff agree, that has not been done before, as journalists from around the state got to learn during a conversation between a murderer and a corrections officer who has been on the job for a decade and a half.
At the launch, inmate and Engagement Director and Producer Jody Aguirre, 58, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for murder and arson, demonstrated some of his broadcasting skills when he spoke on air with Matthew Hansen, Director of Prisons, asking him why this station was important.
“We have to change the perception of what prison is for,” Hansen said. “There’s so many different perceptions and thoughts about what prison is, and most of them are wrong. Most of the thoughts about the people in prison were incomplete. You’re only looking at one tiny sliver of that person, the crime or the thing that brought them here, and forgetting about everything else, all the things that are important to them as an individual that makes them unique. So I think the prison radio will certainly allow those voices to be heard in a better fashion.”
Hansen said that during his quarter-century working in the prison industry, “We were taught that you don’t mix, you don’t talk, you don’t build relationships [with inmates]. How crazy is that?”
He seemed at ease while chatting back and forth in the radio studio, formerly a classroom where prisoners could take GED and other classes. Dressed in a dark suit, he sat among prisoners who wore green scrubs over T-shirts.
Darrius Turner, 32, who is serving 46 years for a 2012 second-degree murder, sat near Aguirre, and explained to other inmates, members of the media and staff gathered in the crowded broadcasting booth: “The ‘us versus them’ mentality can be broken down by simply being the first one to step up and do what’s outside of the norm. With upper management and staff and allies … meeting us halfway, it makes our job easier to stay consistent in what we do to make the changes, to make it safe for inmates and staff, as well as move forward and get us prepared to be back out in society.”
The radio station gave him a sense of being alive again, and a chance to talk about his feelings in ways that other prison programming has not encouraged, he said.
The program has a $500,000 budget for artistic programming. The initiative has gotten inmates involved in theater, podcasting, and producing an online newspaper, according to Executive Director Ashley Hamilton.
“I am really interested in folks seeing incarcerated folks as the artists and thinkers and complex people that they are,” she said, and not just in the one-dimensional lens of the crime they committed.
Alexander, who anticipates possibly being released to a halfway house in the next few years, imagines himself using some of the skills acquired at Inside Wire to launch a career in radio.
“Probably like a lot of editing,” Alexander said. “And you know, if it’s possible, go out and host a show, even at my age.”