106.5 FM: the prison radio station giving Texas men on death row a voice | US prisons

As quickly as I drive previous the East Tempe Church on the outskirts of Livingston, Texas, I can hear the snicker monitor on my radio. It’s from “Martin,” a three-decade-old tv sitcom. The fictional Detroiters’ racy wisecracks appear incongruous crackling by my automotive audio system on a winding nation highway.

When the laughter dies down, the slight Southern lilt of a DJ named “Megamind” cuts in to introduce the subsequent section.

“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 steel bunk in a most safety prison, and his actual title is Ramy Hozaifeh. To the men in the Allan B Polunsky Unit, he’s finest referred to as a common voice on 106.5 FM The Tank, the prison’s personal radio station.

The Tank is so low wattage you may solely hear it for a minute or two after you permit the car parking zone. However the programming is as plentiful and various as any industrial station on the exterior, with exhibits overlaying every part from heavy steel to self-improvement. It’s all recorded in a studio hidden deep inside the prison and stocked full of apparatus, most of which was donated by church buildings and spiritual teams.

It doesn’t have the fame or following of San Quentin’s “Ear Hustle” podcast, however The Tank permits men on one in every of the most restrictive death rows in the country to have a voice that reaches past their cells. Normally – similar to in most lockups – the prisoners at Polunsky will not be allowed to write down letters to one another. However for the radio station, the warden carved out an exception, permitting them to move alongside essays and poems for the workers chaplains to ship to Hozaifeh and his fellow DJs, affording the most remoted men in Texas a uncommon likelihood to be a part of the prison group.

The Tank’s programming includes a wide range of offerings, from mid-day announcements to stock tips to religious services to heavy metal shows.
The Tank’s programming consists of a big selection of choices, from mid-day bulletins to inventory tricks to non secular companies to heavy steel exhibits. {Photograph}: Michael Starghill/The Marshal Challenge

Each morning, Hozaifeh performs an episode of “Martin” or “Sanford and Son” exhibits that also make sense for listeners who can’t see the motion as a result of they’re locked in a cell with no tv. “You possibly can take heed to their clowns,” he stated. “You don’t must see them in any respect.”

Like most lockups, life in the roughly 3,000-man prison an hour and a half north of Houston is fairly bleak, particularly for the high-security prisoners who spend most of their time in solitary. That features a few hundred men remoted as a result of they’re thought of harmful or in peril, nevertheless it additionally consists of practically 200 men on Texas’s death row. For years, the guys on the row have been disconnected from the prison’s basic inhabitants. They’ll’t go to the mess corridor or the chapel or the important yard, so most of the time they solely meet their fellow prisoners in passing – like when janitors come by to mop or hand out towels. They’ll’t go to lessons or prison jobs, they usually don’t have tablets or televisions.

However they do have radios.

The primary time I heard about the station was from a man on death row named John Henry Ramirez. It was a week till 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 on his religion and whether or not he feared death, however what he actually wished to inform me about was the radio station.

“Whenever you get out to the car parking zone, you may simply tune in, and also you’ll hear,” he stated. By the time I received again exterior, he defined, I might catch the midday information replace with the day’s menu.

“It’s grow to be such a enormous a part of Polunsky,” he added. “It is best to hear all the folks speak about it.”

The station began in early 2020, when Warden Daniel Dickerson arrived at Polunsky, and a few prisoners approached him with a query: Would he allow them to begin a radio station?

He’d been requested all kinds of unusual questions in the 24 years he’d labored for the Texas prison system – however this one was a first. Nonetheless, he determined to listen to the men out.

“Once they defined it and what was going to be executed – and naturally every part’s pre-recorded, so it may be checked out and reviewed – it didn’t sound like a dangerous thought,” he stated.

In his eyes, it appeared like a radio station might assist give the men one thing to care about and join with – particularly when the prison was too short-staffed to develop their programming another manner. And in the early days of the pandemic, Dickerson stated, it additionally appeared like a wonderful means to assist prisoners all throughout the facility perceive what was going on, even those that couldn’t go away their cells.

Daniel Dickerson spent 24 years working for Texas prisons before he transferred to the Allan B Polunsky Unit where the prisoners quickly hit him with a question he’d never been asked: Could they start a radio station?
Daniel Dickerson spent 24 years working for Texas prisons earlier than he transferred to the Allan B Polunsky Unit the place the prisoners rapidly hit him with a query he’d by no means been requested: May they begin a radio station? {Photograph}: Michael Starghill/The Marshal Challenge

“They could not all have TV, however most everyone has a radio,” Dickerson informed me. “And anyone who’s been on a cell block is aware of some people will flip the radio up loud sufficient the place even in case you didn’t have one, you’re in all probability going to listen to it anyway.”

The primary time he sat down in his workplace and tuned in, he didn’t remorse it.

“It’s your personal little prison metropolis radio station,” he stated, flashing a cock-eyed grin. “And you may stroll round and see the change in folks.”

At the same time as a customer, I can see it, too. Normally once I interview men on death row, we speak about their circumstances or their upcoming death dates or the circumstances they reside in. However now, they rattle off the programming schedule they know by coronary heart. There’s “Clean Groove” – that’s R&B – on Sundays, then rap on Mondays and Latin music on Tuesdays. There’s a night time for Megamind’s conspiracy idea present impressed by “Coast to Coast AM,” and a night time for different music.

“My favourite present is the heavy steel present,” Ramirez stated. It’s known as “Tales from the Pit,” and the group of prisoners who host it discuss with themselves as “pit chiefs” and their listeners as the “pit crew”. Recently, they’ve taken to referring to Ramirez as a pit chief, too, as a result of he’s written to them so typically, he’s grow to be a a part of the present.

In some methods, The Tank is like a group heart for men who can by no means go away their cells. Apart from the music and the every day bulletins, the DJs stream information and play soundtracks to films. (The popular style is rom-coms, Hozaifeh confided – however “they actually hate prison films”.)

There are additionally non secular companies, a Biblical rap present, suicide prevention applications and inventory ideas from death row. Typically, the men interview one another, and as soon as they interviewed the warden. Once I visited in October, they interviewed me.

I’d been so drawn in by Ramirez’s enthusiasm throughout our dialog that I wished to come back again and see the station. The warden led me by a maze of walkways and hallways earlier than we received to a tiny room buried inside the facility. From the exterior, it seemed like the door to a closet – however inside, the house was crammed with sound gear and computer systems. Apart from the DJ’s white prison uniform, the scene might have been inside an upstart studio anyplace in the exterior world.

When Hozaifeh hit document, we talked some about my life – how I ended up in prison myself and the way I grew to become a reporter afterward. However I’ve been overlaying prisons in Texas lengthy sufficient that a lot of the guys already know these items about me, and a few despatched in additional idiosyncratic questions forward of time: What was your favourite factor on commissary? Do you want 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 strategy to take some measure of management in the closely regulated world of prison, and to listen to their very own phrases on the air at a station run by them and for them.

That’s been a part of the attraction for Jedidiah Murphy, who’s been on death row for 20 years. Since he began listening to The Tank, he’s been writing in to Megamind’s conspiracy idea present usually. Although the quirky content material aligns along with his pursuits, it’s not the important attraction: It’s the viewers that doesn’t decide him by his previous, as a result of all of them have pasts too.

“When you’ve got folks in prison that don’t even actually CARE about the crime or the scenario, that’s one thing that many people haven’t seen,” he wrote to me. “That is inmate-run for INMATES.”

The fellows operating the radio station perceive how a lot which means. They’ve by no means been on death row, however a lot of them – together with Hozaifeh – have been in solitary, too, they usually know the way disorienting the fixed isolation can grow to be.

106.5 FM The Tank launched in early 2020, thanks to support from the new warden and donated equipment from churches and religious groups.
106.5 FM The Tank launched in early 2020, because of help from the new warden and donated gear from church buildings and spiritual teams. {Photograph}: Michael Starghill/The Marshal Challenge

“You simply don’t know in case you exist anymore,” Hozaifeh stated. “It simply sort of removes your humanity from you, and I believe the radio has put that again in the equation.”

In September, a few days earlier than Ramirez was to be executed for the 2004 killing of a retailer clerk, the guys who run the heavy steel present curated a playlist for him and performed pre-recorded messages from his inside buddies and outdoors supporters. The rap present learn letters from listeners, recounting methods through which his contributions to the station had touched their lives.

As per ordinary, he tuned in – however this time he received to reply along with his personal voice. The day earlier than Ramirez was scheduled to go to the death home, the warden made an unprecedented resolution: He let the condemned man go to church. It was a particular service exterior, and there was a chain hyperlink fence between Ramirez and the choir from Common Inhabitants – “GP” – nevertheless it was nonetheless a first for death row. Afterward, The Tank aired the finest bits for the entire prison to listen to.

When Ramirez spoke, he talked about his regrets and described how he cried as he watched his mom stroll away from her remaining go to. However he additionally talked about the radio station, and the way it had given him one final likelihood to be a part of a group.

“I don’t know if y’all actually perceive how huge that’s as a result of y’all in GP,” he informed the different prisoners. “Have a look at how y’all all subsequent to one another. Y’all posted up, y’all strolling round, y’all touching one another. We ain’t received none of that. Y’all received group. We alone, all of us by ourselves.”

Earlier than lengthy, he’d be going some place else alone, taking the final steps to his personal death in a sterile room an hour away in Huntsville. “Are you aware how huge that’s?” he requested. “From all that I took out of the world, all the damaging I did, all the folks I harm…all that egocentric carelessness that I did as an fool little child, now I received to pay for it as a man.”

As he talked, the men listening fell silent.

Every morning, Hozaifeh starts off the day by airing 90s sitcoms, shows that still make sense even when you can’t see them. He greets his audience with the tongue-in-cheek catchphrase: “Bringing it to you, room service-style.”
Each morning, Hozaifeh begins off the day by airing 90s sitcoms, exhibits that also make sense even when you may’t see them. He greets his viewers with the tongue-in-cheek catchphrase: “Bringing it to you, room service-style.” {Photograph}: Michael Starghill/The Marshal Challenge

“For years now, the solely factor I might do was make it about everybody else,” Ramirez continued, explaining how he poured himself into the station in the hope that he might go away behind one thing good to assist different folks.

“As a result of it’s essential to me, man, it’s essential 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 provide you with my phrases.”

Someday later – on the night time he was to be put to death – the US supreme court docket determined to listen to his attraction, halting the execution. Now, whereas he waits for the justices to weigh in, Ramirez is again on the row and tuning into The Tank once more, mailing Megamind his ideas and contributions.

Once I left from my October go to to the station, I headed off in the other way from which I’d come, pondering of Ramirez and Hozaifeh and the little room crammed with sound gear.

I flipped on my radio to 106.5 FM, and listened as Megamind pumped up his listeners, speaking about religion and gratitude and discovering methods to make which means out of life behind bars. Simply after I handed the Greenback Common, his voice started to fade, changed by the staticky phrases of a distant love track.

This text was revealed in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit information group overlaying the U.S. prison justice system. Join The Marshall Challenge’s newsletter, or observe them on Facebook or Twitter.

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