The Allan B. Polunsky Unit's Prisoner-Run Radio Station : Consider This from NPR The men on death row in Allan B. Polunsky Unit, a maximum security prison in southeastern Texas, spend most of their time in solitary confinement, isolated from each other. Now, a prison radio station is giving them a sense of community and a way to be heard.

Keri Blakinger talks about how it started and the impact it's had. Read her piece "The Prisoner-Run Radio Station That's Reaching Men on Death Row" at The Marshall Project.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

A Texas Prison's Radio Station Helps Incarcerated Men Build Community

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello, Polunsky.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Allan B. Polunsky Unit, a maximum-security prison in southeastern Texas, is home to one of the country's most restrictive death rows.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome back to another week of life's roundtable (ph).

CHANG: The nearly 200 men on death row there spend most of their time in solitary confinement, isolated from the rest of the prison population.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Are we on or what?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah, we're on, baby.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Are we on?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: While we're (unintelligible) tales from the pit.

CHANG: They can't go to classes or watch television, but they can listen and contribute to 106.5 FM The Tank.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: All right, my friends, time to wake up. The world is awake and waiting on you. What are you going to present today?

CHANG: CONSIDER THIS - research has long shown that solitary confinement can have devastating physical and mental health impacts. Coming up, how a prison radio station is giving inmates who can't leave their cells a sense of community and a way to be heard.

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CHANG: From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Thursday, January 13.

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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. Solitary confinement can cause health issues like heart damage and depression and increased sensitivity to sounds, smells and light. It can also affect former prisoners' abilities to socialize and connect with other people once they have been released. According to estimates from Solitary Watch and The Marshall Project, the number of prisoners in solitary went way up at the height of the pandemic to about 300,000.

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CHANG: Even before the pandemic, it was policy at the Polunsky Unit for men on death row to be held in solitary confinement. They don't share meals or recreational time. And they can't have physical contact with their families. So it's easy to imagine why 106.5 FM The Tank has become such a big part of their lives.

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JOHN HENRY RAMIREZ: And I thank you all so much, all of y'all, man, the ones that got the equipment, the ones that put it together, everyone that puts in their time on The Tank. I don't care what you're doing, you work at the switchboard, you're mopping the floors, you're picking up trash, I love y'all, boys. I love what y'all making available for us. Y'all are giving us a community.

CHANG: That's John Henry Ramirez, a death row inmate speaking to a small group of prisoners at a special church service. We'll hear more about him a bit later.

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KERI BLAKINGER: The warden and some of the other staff have expressed that this has given some of the guys, you know, something to look forward to, be part of a community.

CHANG: Keri Blakinger is a journalist who has covered Texas prisons for years. She visited the Polunsky Unit multiple times.

BLAKINGER: You know, it sort of gives them a reason to not act out as well. You know, they all want to be able to keep their radios and stay in contact.

CHANG: With each other. So I spoke with Blakinger about her reporting, and I started by asking her to paint a fuller picture of daily life on death row at the Polunsky Unit.

BLAKINGER: It's pretty stark for both the guys on death row and a few hundred other guys that are in largely constant solitary confinement. You know, this is sort of like if you're locked in your bathroom for years or months. They only get one five-minute phone call every 90 days. So a lot of their communication with the general population had so far just been in the form of sort of clandestine notes that are, you know, passed under the door and the janitor, like, sweeps them away and takes them to whoever. And that's sort of the extent of their communication with the rest of the prison.

CHANG: Well, in the middle of this bleak, pretty stark existence that you're describing, there's this radio station, The Tank. I'm just curious about the origin story. Like, how did the station even get started in the middle of all this?

BLAKINGER: Yeah. I think a lot of that the credit goes to the warden being willing to take a chance on this. Near the start of the pandemic, that prison got a new warden, Warden Dickerson. And the guys in the chaplain program, the prisoner chaplain program, asked if they could start a radio station. They got some equipment donated from local religious groups and churches. So they started this radio station, built a little, you know, roomful of equipment inside the middle of this maximum-security prison.

CHANG: Well, can you give us a sense of sort of the larger variety of programming that's been on the station? Like, what's some of the most popular content or some of the stuff that you personally found most interesting as you were listening?

BLAKINGER: So some of the things you mentioned before, like there is heavy metal show. There is an alternative airwaves, which is, you know, alternative music. There's a Latin music night. They have, you know, four or five hours of music-type programming every night. They have their conspiracy theory show. They have some financial tips from a guy on death row. One of the things that I actually found most interesting was that they've been playing movies for the blind - like, movies that have narration to them - so that even if you don't have access to a TV screen, you can hear the movie and understand it. And I thought that was so interesting. That one had never occurred to me.

CHANG: That's so cool, yeah.

BLAKINGER: Apparently, they really like rom-coms, and they hate prison movies.

CHANG: Well, you write a lot about this one prisoner, John Henry Ramirez, a death row inmate who, like, literally on the day of his scheduled execution, the Supreme Court decided to hear his appeal. And before we get into his relationship to this radio station, can you just tell us a little bit more about him?

BLAKINGER: Yeah, sure. So John Ramirez had been on death row for more than a decade when I met him, and he was there for stabbing to death a Corpus Christi convenience store clerk in 2004.

CHANG: Right. And there was a point this fall where it looked like Ramirez was definitely going to be executed on schedule, and he spoke to listeners on The Tank. Let's hear what he had to say.

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RAMIREZ: I just took that fool from his kids and from his wife and from his friends, and I ain't never going to be able to give anything back like that no matter how much good I do. And that hurts me so bad, man. It hurts me so bad, and I strive so hard to do so much better. And I'm trying to encourage people around me to do that. And The Tank has helped me. The Tank has given me an avenue to do that.

CHANG: Can you just tell us, like, how did this moment come about? Like, how did he decide to get on the radio and spill out his feelings like this?

BLAKINGER: This is just - yeah, this is such an extraordinary clip. This was from the night before he was scheduled to be executed when the warden decided to let him have a church service out in the outdoor rec area. And, you know, he spoke for 10 minutes to the other prisoners who were there. And he just, you know, bares his soul, and it's such an extraordinary moment, in part because it's a prisoner speaking to other prisoners. Like, this is how they talk to each other. He's not doing this with the expectation that the rest of the world would be listening. But, you know, they recorded it and then played it later on The Tank. And then after I visited the radio station, they sent me this clip, and I was just blown away.

CHANG: And how did the other prisoners react to Ramirez's remarks? Do you know?

BLAKINGER: Yeah. In the beginning of that, you can hear them clapping some. And then as he keeps speaking, they just fall silent. And I can only imagine that they were as moved by this as I am. I mean, that's just a piece of the clip. The whole speech was about 10 minutes, and it's all really extraordinary.

CHANG: Well, I know that, you know, you had a chance to talk to Ramirez for a little bit. What did he say about what this station has meant to him during his time on death row?

BLAKINGER: I think he sort of starts to get at it in that little clip that you're hearing, but it seems like a lot of this is him - his way of leaving behind something good in the world. You know, he talks about the wrongs he's done and things he regrets in the past. And there's so little that you can do, that you can leave behind, so few changes you can make to the world from inside a solitary confinement cell. And like he said at one point, you know, all that he can leave you is his words, and he's done that.

CHANG: You had this other quote from another inmate there who was writing to you about the station. And he says in part what draws him to The Tank is that, quote, "this is inmate-run for inmates." Can you talk about why that is so important - inmate-run for inmates?

BLAKINGER: Yeah. I think in some ways, that sort of creates a safe space almost when you know that you have this very specific experience that most of the world will really judge you for but your audience is mostly people who deeply understand that.

CHANG: I understand that you were incarcerated yourself for just under two years for heroin possession. What would it have been like while you were in prison to have something like The Tank be this source of connection with other people who are also incarcerated? What would that have meant to you?

BLAKINGER: I was fortunate that where I was in prison, we weren't spending, you know, months or years in solitary confinement. So we already had a little more access to community. But I think that this also gets at something else - you know, the sort of idea that we're all there because we know we've - you know, we've done something wrong. And this is a way to leave a positive mark, sort of like exactly what John Ramirez says. And I feel like this is now what I do every day in my journalism.

CHANG: Well, thank you for your work and for this incredible reporting on this radio station. That is Keri Blakinger, a journalist who has covered Texas prisons for years and who wrote about The Tank for the Marshall Project and The Guardian.

Thank you very much for being with us.

BLAKINGER: Thank you for having me.

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CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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