The men living on death row in Livingston, Texas have little contact with the outside world – even others incarcerated in the same prison. But they communicate. Residents of the Polunsky Unit operate a prison radio station that broadcasts music, religious content and life skills to a prison audience.
This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us more about this station. Where exactly is it and who is running it?
Keri Blakinger: It is managed by prisoners and it is located inside the Polunsky unit. From the outside it looks like some kind of almost indescribable closet, and you walk into this room in the center of the unit and it’s filled with sound equipment donated by churches.
What do you really hear at the station? You have had the opportunity to listen, haven’t you?
Yeah, I did. I visited the station and interviewed one of the main managers, who is called Megamind. And I’m really impressed with the amount of programming they have. They’ve got some sort of 24-hour programming, like you would any real world radio station, and they have heavy metal shows – it’s very popular. They’re doing life skills classes. They have stuff in Spanish. There are a lot of religious programs. They have a little conspiracy theory show at night, and they also do interviews. They questioned the manager. They interviewed a member of the criminal justice commission. They interviewed some of the other guys on the unit, talking about things the audience in particular would understand better than anyone else. And when I visited, they interviewed me.
It sounds quite interesting to listen to. Can all prisoners listen to the station?
Anyone who has a radio is a low power station so you can’t hear very far beyond the parking lot. Which is also a really cool feature, because I think in some ways it’s almost a safe space for guys saying these things. Because they can talk about deeply personal things and understand that the audience that hears them is an audience that understands these issues in ways that most of the world cannot.
How did you hear about the station?
I was interviewing John Ramirez, who had an expected execution date of September. You may remember him. This was the guy who was trying to get permission for his chaplain to touch him while he was being executed,
So the week before he was performed I interviewed him and then he mentioned this station and we ended up spending about a third of the interview talking about this radio station which I think , is also very revealing. With this potential execution date looming, he was really excited to talk about this radio. That’s how important it is to them.
What do prison officials think of this ability to communicate beyond the walls and whether or not this affects the spirit of incarceration, in particular the isolation that is definitely part of it, at least historically speaking?
I think part of this is because this director seems determined to be ready to try new, more progressive things. There is one thing he told me that was not included in my story, is that we always talk about the prison population, but we [prison staff] grow too. And I just thought it was really interesting that you have prison officials in Texas even thinking about their own growth and how to do it better.
So when the prisoners came to see him at the start of the pandemic, asked him if they could start a station, saying they had any donations of equipment, and he said yes. It was sort of taking a risk. It’s kind of a risk. But he also saw the potential to help these guys have something meaningful to engage in, especially when the prisons are so understaffed that they probably won’t really be able to add solid programming. in another way.