In 1990 the Texas prison system housed approximately 48,000 prisoners, but by 1998 the population had grown to 150,000; in the last decade, the Texas prison population increased in size by at least 180% (Horton 244). Theorists, including Angela Davis and Christian Parenti, argue that the increasing rates of incarceration function as a political attack on poor communities of color. The attack works by not only removing some of a community’s members, but by militarizing the community under the surveillance of the police. After fear is spread throughout the community, neighbors stop meeting and talking with each other, and therefore, they become politically divided and unable to fight for social justice. However, this attack does not appear political as the “objective” system of criminal justice neatly individualizes the process from arrest to incarceration.
The Texas Prison Show enters into this environment with the goal of creating a medium for families and friends to communicate with the incarcerated. In order to meet this goal, the Prison Show broadcasts the private messages from families and friends to prisoners over the public radio waves. By publicly broadcasting these intimate conversations, the Prison Show reverses the isolating effects of the prison by reconnecting prisoners to their family and friends and by exposing the callers’ shared experiences in dealing with incarceration; as a result, the Prison Show forms an activist community, which responds to the isolating political attack of the prison.
Each Friday night at 9:00 P.M., Ray Hill opens the Prison Show with, “Holler down the pipe, chase and rattle them bars, ’cause we’re gonna do a Prison Show.” The program airs from the radio station KPFT, a Pacifica community radio station in Houston, Texas. The thirty-seven year old station is one of five Pacifica radio stations across the country, all of which are committed to political activism that works toward social justice through public discourse, independent of corporate interests. KPFT has the ability to provide commercial-free and independent programming because ninety percent of their funding comes from individual listeners, and none from large corporations. This allows the station to focus its programming around its goal of being a “unifying force in a city of great economic and cultural contrasts” (About). Other groups have understood the political power of the station to fight against racial oppression as the KKK bombed the station twice, immediately after KPFT’s opening in 1970. Another attack just occurred recently on August 13, 2007 when an unknown individual shot a rifle into the station, nearly missing one of the station workers. Currently, KPFT broadcasts to an audience of over six million people and has a listening audience of approximately 150,000 people per week (About). Out of the larger listening audience, the station reaches twenty-five percent of the 150,000 male Texas inmates (approximately 37,500 prisoners), mainly from the areas surrounding the cities of Houston, Huntsville, and Beaumont1 (Nowell). The program reaches over 20 men’s prisons; all of the Texas women’s prisons are currently out of broadcast range.2
Host Ray Hill, an ex-convict, created the program in 1980. He first began the show as prison news, trying to bring attention to the plight of prisoners without a political voice, but the program quickly evolved into its current form when a caller phoned during the show (Bragg). Hill decided to put the anxious woman on the air, and she said, “I wanted to speak to my son. I hope he’s listening.” Hill responded, “He’s listening, ma’am. Go on and talk” (Bragg). Confident that her son was listening to the program, the woman explained to Hill and the show’s radio audience that she had been in an accident and was therefore unable to make the prison’s visitation hours. After this call, the show’s format quickly changed to its current form. The first hour continues to be a discussion on prison issues and activism in which Ray Hill interviews wardens, politicians, parole board officers, counselors, defense attorneys, and others who work within the criminal justice system. He generally discusses prison issues with the staff and whoever stops into the KPFT studios that Friday night, and he encourages anyone who he has met, from ex-cons to politicians, to attend the live broadcast and join in on the conversation. The second hour, which is this article’s focus, is a one-way conversation where family members leave live messages for the listening prisoners in their cells. Calls typically last under two minutes and follow the basic style of the first message quoted above. In a typical call, a woman calls her husband and tells him the news of the week, when she is coming to visit, and that she has just received his letter and a new letter from her is on the way. This format of a prison call-in show has no other counterpart in the United States, but several European countries have directly modeled their shows after the Texas Prison Show (KPFT). The Prison Show’s messages are available to the general public during the show’s radio hours and in the form of a free, weekly podcast.
The Texas Prison Show first aired in 1980, the same date that marks the beginning of our current prison system.3 I want to contextualize this unique period in order to understand the Prison Show’s role of connecting prison families into a collective and political community which might begin to resist the prison’s efforts to keep communities divided and powerless. By comparison to the 1980s, the prison of the 1970s functioned as an extension of the radical people’s movement and was seen as a place that actively recruited and produced new members of groups such as the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam, but by 1980 the prison lost its active connection with larger political movements.4 In his work Lockdown America (2000), Christian Parenti argues that this current prison period is marked by an increased rate of incarceration, which controls poor communities of color by severing community bonds through the militarization of public space. Although the prison has continually functioned in the US to control racial and class boundaries,5 in 1980 the prison began a renewed attack on poor communities of color. In 1980, the rates of incarceration began a steady and significant incline that has not yet subsided. According to many theorists,6 the reason for the change in the prison came from an economic restructuring characterized primarily by deindustrialization. Parenti contends that deindustrialization was the impetus for the increase in incarceration rates because higher rates of poverty created a group of people who were “threats to order,” and as a result, the prison and the larger criminal justice system responded in the form of higher rates of incarceration as a political attack on impoverished communities (Parenti 167). As Parenti argues, the prison system intensified in the 1980s in order to manage and control people impoverished by deindustrialization and mount a political attack by “terrorizing” the poor so that they would not collectively rise up and demand their share of capital (Parenti 169).
As an example in Texas, the African-American community faces incarceration rates seven times higher than those of white communities (Center). Also, one out of every four African-American males are involved in some form of the criminal justice system, and the rates increase to 29%, almost one out of every three, when the data includes only African-American males between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-nine (Center). The disproportional rates of incarceration that exist in poor communities of color represent a definite political attack not only on those who are incarcerated, and not only on those who fear being arrested, but on the entire community. When these neighborhoods become militarized through police occupation, the community quickly learns to distance themselves from their neighbors (Gilmore 16). If the necessary bonds needed for grassroots activism and political organization do not exist between community members, then it becomes extremely difficult to fight for community interests; as a result, issues such as employment, safety, health care, and every other relevant political issue cannot find support and momentum. In addition, the prison and the larger system of criminal justice cannot be dismantled without a connected and organized community; therefore, the prison’s power to control racial and class boundaries remains intact.
In the post-1980s era, the most invasive division caused by the prison system severs the intimate ties between prisoners and their families. Although it is understood that incarceration physically removes prisoners from others, prisoners should be permitted avenues of communication that keep them connected with the non-incarcerated world. In fact, multiple studies in the academic discipline of criminal justice have proven the benefits of keeping prisoners in contact with their families7 (Hoffmann 47-8). However, Hoffmann’s 2007 sociological study entitled, “Communication Policy Changes,” found that from 1971 to 2005, prisoner communication has become more restrictive rather than less. Hoffmann’s study—through an examination of conjugal visits, furlough programs, letter writing, and telephone communication—concluded that all of these outlets became more restrictive, with the exception of outgoing telephone calls. The study found that although prisoners’ ability to receive calls decreased from 38% in 1971 to 12% in 2005, the ability to make telephone calls actually went up (Hoffmann 55); for example, in 1971 only 7% of prisoners were allowed to make three or more calls a month, but in 2005 that number had increased to 82% (Hoffmann 55). However, the study proposed that the most likely reason for the increase of outgoing telephone calls was due to a change that passed the financing of calls onto the prisoners. Hoffmann lists that the prison paid for 56% of prisoner phone calls in 1971 and 0% in 2005 (Hoffmann 55). Furthermore, by 2005 corporations such as Correctional Billing Services (CBS) were serving over 2,000 facilities, and their rates were often ten times higher than if families were allowed to call the prison directly (Hoffmann 57). Once corporations began making this much profit from prisoner communication, the prison was persuaded to allow prisoners to make as many phone calls as possible.
Though the nation’s prisons increased the amount of phone communication during the post-1980 era, the state of Texas denies the vast majority of prisoners any access to telephones; as a result, the Prison Show’s popularity derives from an extreme need for families and prisoners to stay in contact with each other, as the majority must rely on this radio show for any type of telephone communication. In Texas, families and friends are never permitted to make a phone call to any Texas prisoner, and the only prisoners who are allowed access to a telephone must be classified as a “trusty”: that is, a prisoner who has been awarded special privileges due to his good behavior (Renaud 75). However, even “trusties” get very little access to phones, as they are only permitted one five-minute phone call each ninety days (Renaud 75). Admittedly, the Prison Show can only supply an extremely limited amount of phone communication. First, the telephone is only used as a way to leave messages, not a shared conversation. Second, each episode only allows for about twenty-five to thirty calls per show. This means that thirty prisoners out of a listening incarcerated population of 37,500 (only about one tenth of a percent) each week get to hear about two minutes of a one-way conversation. This statistic is not to show that the program has no effect, but rather demonstrates how desperate people are to communicate with their incarcerated friends and family. Callers start dialing when Hill opens the phone lines at 9:20, forty minutes before the second hour; when the show begins, callers who have not made it into the first round of holding callers frantically redial to get a chance to leave a two minute message. Each week approximately thirty callers get turned down for a chance to speak (Hill). However limited, the show does provide a consistent contact between family members, which would not exist if not for the Prison Show. As Ray Hill jokingly claims, KPFT stands for “Keeping Prison Families Together.”
The Prison Show has the strength to keep families together because the second hour sustains and furthers relationships through weekly communication. As Ray Hill points out, for some callers, this is the only type of communication that they have with a prisoner. As calls come from all across the U.S., these callers cannot easily make the trip to East Texas. Other callers simply do not have the resources to travel to the prison. Often, prisoners may not have a high enough ability to read and write, as 40% of prisoners are functionally illiterate and 19% are completely illiterate (Mentor 555), thus rendering correspondence through mail impossible or, at the best, limited. So, at times, the Prison Show is the only way relationships can continue for years upon years. Some people call in every Friday (whether or not they visit and write to their family member in prison). One example is the Hernandez family, which actually shows up at the station each Friday and has been doing so for close to ten years (Hill). The daughter, Alexis, has the message to her father down to a predictable form. Throughout the call, whenever she pauses to think of what to tell her father next, she repeats, “I love you and I miss you.” She tells him all of the details of what has been going on at school, with her friends, and on her soccer team. She then finishes by singing a verse from “You are My Sunshine, My Only Sunshine.” Her singing is sweet and memorable, and a couple of the authors of articles on the Prison Show have chosen to describe her singing (Dee and Fraser). Through her weekly reports, the listeners of the show know the details of how her school work is going and how her soccer team is doing. The consistency of Alexis’ calls charts her growing up, and thus demonstrates how valuable the Prison Show is for prisoners who need to maintain familial ties while incarcerated, but have little resources to do so.
A similar situation is that of a woman who calls-in for her husband Norman and leaves this message, which is interrupted by Hill:
Woman: I decided last minute today to do a yard sale tomorrow. So I’ve been pulling everything out of the attic. I just can’t quite sit still. I have to have these little projects going on. So Brendan is going to sell doughnuts and coffee. He is excited about that.
Ray: Brendan has grown up on this show
Woman: He has absolutely. 4 months to 5 years, already. It’s amazing.
If Alexis Hernandez’s singing of “You are My Sunshine” and five year-old Brendan’s selling of donuts touches the general public, we can only imagine how important it is for prisoners to hear the voices of their children tell of their experiences in these formative years.
Since the Prison Show is a call-in show, the program directly fills the void of restricted telephone conversations, but the program also plays a key role in other forms of communication that are limited by the Texas prison. This becomes evident in that the most common messages left by callers include some information about other forms of communication such as visitations or letters. For example, in the episode of August 31, 2007, every caller makes some reference to either (and often both) a visit or a letter (Prison Show). Unlike the non-incarcerated world, where people can use multiple forms of communication, prisoners must rely on letters which are at times lost in the mail, blocked, or taken by prison officials who are required to censor the mail. Often, a family member calls in to reassure a listening prisoner that a letter has been sent or that it will be sent.
Since Texas has stricter regulations on prison visitations than the national average, the Prison Show acts as an extremely useful tool to families who want to stay physically connected with prisoners. According to Hoffmann’s national study, 53% of prisons allow visitations more than four days a week, whereas Texas’ prisons only allow visitations on Saturdays and Sundays (Hoffmann 4, TDCJ 3). Nationally, 62% of prisons allow a prisoner at least more than four visitations a week, whereas Texas only allows one visitation per weekend (Hoffmann 5, TDCJ 3). In Texas, a person wishing to visit a prisoner must first communicate with the prisoner so as to have that prisoner place him or her on the list of ten people permitted to visit him. For example, a typical caller to the Prison Show might ask a prisoner to put on his uncle for the upcoming weekend visit. Across Texas, none of the prisons offer conjugal visits, and “contact visits” are allowed for only prisoners labeled as SAT IV (basically, minimum security prisoners who are listed as “trusties”) (Renaud 72, 138). Prisoners are only permitted contact visits with immediate family members, and the only physical contact that can occur is a hug and kiss at the beginning and end of the visit, and holding hands during the visit while sitting on opposite sides of the table. Jorge Antonio Renaud in his text, Behind the Walls: A Guide of Family and Friends of Texas Prison Inmates (2002), warns family members, especially women, to dress conservatively because a visit will be denied if a visitor is wearing such things as a tank-top or a skirt with a hemline that does not pass the knee. Also, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, all male visitors are not permitted to wear shorts. This sample of Texas’ limitations and regulations regarding visitations demonstrates the difficulties throughout the process of visiting an inmate.
Although visitations should provide an invaluable connection between prisoners and their families, often the difficulty and energy spent on prison visitations becomes too taxing for families to maintain this form of communication. The Prison Show cannot completely reverse this difficulty, but the show does provide some assistance to make visitations possible. Megan Comfort’s ethnographic study, “In the Tube at San Quentin” (2003), concludes that visitors of prisoners are intentionally made to feel criminalized when visiting the prison. She labels this process “secondary prisonization” to explain how communicating with prisoners, in a sense, spreads the shame and alienation of criminalization onto the non-incarcerated. This process demonstrates how communication with prisoners—which is supposed to break the individuating process of incarceration—instead produces further division. Following Parenti’s argument that incarceration affects entire communities, Comfort’s study shows how the effects of incarceration are passed on to the larger community. Gilmore’s study comes to the same conclusion; she writes, “In other words, prisons wear out places by wearing out people, irrespective of whether they have done time” (Gilmore 17). The Prison Show cannot erase the amount of effort that must be spent to visit a prisoner or replace the benefits of physical connection, but—as seen in the prolific calls concerning visitations—the program does help prison families by passing on information, apologies, or reassurances related to visits.
Although we can theorize that the legal system attacks poor communities of color by criminalizing public space, the prison itself does not stand out as an issue that can unite people in a shared resistance, in that the prison system’s attack appears individualized. Ruth Gilmore writes, “Arrest and incarceration are common in the United States, yet those who are touched by law enforcement are so segregated, in many different ways, that the experience of confrontation with the legal system does not of itself produce any kind of strong social identification” (Gilmore 222). The legal system neatly incarcerates and individuates each person into an arrest and a legal sentence, which appears to be non-biased and objective, and thus, apolitical. If the families directly affected by these individualizing sentences never meet, and can never enter into any dialogue of shared experience, what hope is there that those harmed by the legal system will have some ability to organize against the forces that oppress them? The task of connecting maimed families to other impacted families is thus extremely difficult because, as Angela Davis has noted, many families who have an immediate family member in prison do not publicly acknowledge their involvement with the prison out of shame (Davis 15). This shame that the prison produces gives the prison more power, as families and communities directly affected by the prison feel compelled to hide their identities, and therefore rarely form alliances that could question the prison. Any type of political activism surrounding issues related to the prison should understand that the prison actively breaks the social cohesion of communities, and therefore, those fighting for social justice should ask this question: how is our work facilitating bonds between the people directly affected by the prison?
In order to demonstrate the method used by the Prison Show to form alliances among community members in a post-1980 environment, I will examine Ruth Gilmore’s study of the prison activist group in California, Mothers Reclaiming Our Children (MROC), included in her 2007 text Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Gilmore’s study of MROC demonstrates an organizational and activist technique that works to create political and community bonds in direct response to the militarized landscape caused by the criminal justice system in the post-1980 environment. The basic premise behind resistance that works effectively in a fragmented community is expressed best through a simple political chant, which Gilmore uses as the epigraph to open her chapter: “Now that you have touched the women, you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, and you will be crushed” (Gilmore 181). This South African women’s chant from the 1950s strikes back at the State’s usage of the public/private gender division. In terms of incarceration within the United States, the attack on families appears apolitical in that the disconnections that the prison causes are within families, so the problem is ostensibly within the domestic private sphere and not the political public sphere. However, since the bio-power of the state is so intimately intrusive within certain communities, the usual trope of families being outside of the political public sphere can quickly be exposed as mere fiction. The MROC and the Prison Show take the effects of incarceration out of the hidden domestic places and posit them into the public sphere, where a political movement can begin to reveal what the State has been doing to families and communities. When families stand up and reveal the marks and scars that have been left by the prison regime, the connections between the prison regime and the oppressed are exposed, and the visible scars become a uniting reason from which to organize against the prison.
In Gilmore’s study, she finds that the Mothers ROC had to begin forming this boulder of opposition out of the quotidian spaces that appear apolitical and unaffected by the prison; within these spaces of severed bonds, the possibility of organizing a mass of people who have been negatively affected by the prison lies just underneath the surface, covered in shame until some activism can utilize it. This perspective, and Gilmore’s larger argument, asks that if this much destruction and fragmentation has been caused by the prison regime, then how powerful a force could be developed in direct response to the state’s individual attacks if the fragments could form a whole? This insurrection must be found within the broken ties, within the fragmentation of communities. This resistance should be “organic” in that it should come out of the antagonism that is already (unfortunately) active between the prison and certain communities. Gilmore details the simple process of the Mothers ROC working within fragments of social connections; she writes, “These projects also caught people in the ‘betweens’ of segregated lives: at work, for example, or on the bus” (Gilmore 237). Here, Gilmore is not arguing that the bus is somehow a revolutionary concept, but that the bus is a public space where people casually meet in this social environment that is always/already ravished by the prison. In this sense, the bus moves in what Gilmore would call “spaces created by intensified imprisonment” (Gilmore 239).
The Prison Show produces the type of political solidarity that Gilmore finds in the Mothers ROC by using the public radio waves to highlight the communality of incarceration. The Prison Show begins organically with a real problem: how can we communicate with the incarcerated? The answer that Ray Hill finds is the second hour of the show, where prisoners listen to live messages left by their family and friends. If the power of the prison is to physically separate families, to divide communities, and to disrupt political activism, the Prison Show actively resists the prison’s political attack by reestablishing the bonds that the prison has broken. The Prison Show effectively organizes communities of activism among the listening families by working within the fragmented landscape of the post-1980s era of intensified incarceration. A theoretical example of how an activist group might work against restrictions on prisoner communication, but not within the interstices of incarceration, would be to fight directly against those restrictions; instead, the Prison Show works within these limitations and barriers. Though this might appear to be the conservative and assimilated approach, the show’s tactic proves more effective because it highlights how the prison divides families in the post-1980 era. The Texas prison denies a private conversation between families and prisoners, and as a simple organic answer to this inability, the Prison Show works within the barriers and makes these intimate conversations public. As a result, this unique form of public communication exposes the divisions that the prison creates. When these divisions are witnessed by those people and families feeling isolated by the prison, the Prison Show makes clear the communality of incarceration.
To a listener of the Prison Show, many of the calls might appear to be small talk, describing mundane details of a person’s day, but the quotidian nature of the calls does not take away from their significance. From one perspective, this is small talk and a needed opening for some of the more serious conversations that need to occur, whether a conversation about a sick family member or about problems created directly by imprisonment. From another perspective, such small talk is thoroughly infected by the division that the prison creates. As in the above example of a garage sale, the details about everyday life have a deeper importance when listeners consider the remarks in the contextual backdrop of imprisonment. The listener assumes that the reason this woman “can’t quite sit still” is because she needs to stay busy in order to not think obsessively about the absence of her husband. Even a conversation about the weather is loaded with the restrictions caused by incarceration, as the weather stands as a marker of things that prisoners cannot experience in the same manner as their families. Although it is possible for prisoners to indirectly experience the rain through noticing the drop in temperature that follows a storm, they cannot see and feel the rain or see the effects of the rain on the environment. These types of “everyday” messages left by family members or loved ones on the Prison Show consist of a double performance: small talk opens up a conversation and it also communicates the differences of experience between a non-incarcerated life and an incarcerated life.
Occasionally, the program actually brings prison families into physical contact with each other. Since callers’ comments typically relate to visitations, a caller from Houston, for example, may let other non-incarcerated listeners know that he or she is traveling to Huntsville for the coming weekend. In order to arrange a ride to Huntsville together, the caller will leave his or her information with one of the workers of the Prison Show, and this information will be passed on to anyone who calls in. As a result, at least two people will travel to the prison together. Although the prison separates people from their loved ones by building prisons outside of the urban areas where incarceration rates are the highest, the act of carpooling reverses the fragmentation caused by the prison. It is expected that the barrier of poverty should keep people who lack cars unable to travel from the city to the rural prison; but instead a small group forms within the environment of incarceration through the need to share resources. I am of course not arguing that forced travel and a lack of resources are positives, but since these negative results of incarceration already exist, individual struggles are transformed into a collective struggle and a collective action.
Though the actual physical connection of individual callers carpooling to the prison most clearly demonstrates my argument, the most typical type of connection formed by the second hour of the Prison Show comes from the commonality of the messages left for prisoners. As stated above, the calls become difficult to distinguish from one another in that almost all of the callers mention visitations and letters, share the small details of their lives, talk about the problems caused by incarceration, and generally state “I love you and I miss you.” Patsy Halanski, a board member of the Texas Inmates Association, finds that the Prison Show’s strength comes from these shared narratives; she says, “Most people are embarrassed to say they have a loved one in prison. They think they will be judged for that. But when they listen to this show, they realize that they are not alone, that other people can relate to what they’re going through” (Texas). The commonality of the narratives exposes the commonality of the position of the callers, offering callers not the individualizing effects of imprisonment, but a shared bond related to imprisonment.
The second hour of the show opens with a song Jeff Bates wrote specifically for the Prison Show. The song may be sappy and overly sentimental, but it demonstrates how easily the calls fit into a shared narrative. The chorus goes as follows:
So say hi to my brother Bill, and thanks for taking my call
It is nice to know that there is a voice, heard deep inside those walls
No matter how many doors they lock, well they can’t keep you away
It is nice to know you’re out there, the Prison Show with Ray
The chorus returns the song and returns the listeners to the organic purpose of the show, to reconnect prisoners with their family members. The verses function as a demonstration of the Prison Show’s typical calls. For example:
I’m calling from Victoria, my boy is in Ellis One
Your mom and me both love you, I know you know that son
We’ll be up in just two weeks, be sure that you’re on time
You know how your mother gets, when she has to wait in line
The first line of this verse begins with the imagined caller addressing the larger listening audience by introducing himself and his son; the caller gives information of where he is calling from and where his son is housed as a means to contextualize his message. The first line attempts to recreate the format of calls to the Prison Show, as most callers begin their comments with something similar to, “I’m calling for. . . ” and “He is in the Wynne unit”; or the caller briefly asks, “How you doing, Ray?” Then the caller will begin a one-way conversation with the prisoner directly. Another verse recreates the quotidian events that surround the development of a young person:
Your sister is just doing fine, you know she turned sixteen
She had to learn to use a clutch, it is the damnedest thing I’ve seen
Bates includes this humorous description of a child growing up mixed with the bittersweet absence of an incarcerated family member in order to recreate the experience so as to be felt on both sides of the razor-wire.
The song for the Prison Show can easily represent the type of calls made to the show in that the calls from families of prisoners have these obvious similarities with each other. Making public the common bonds shared by prison families is the first step to forming an opposition to the political attack that higher rates of incarceration have made on poor communities of color. In the post-1980 militarized environment, communities have a new set of obstacles that must be overcome, but the task of forming an activist community is challenging because the formation of social bonds has become more difficult due to the prison and criminal justice system’s increased power to divide communities. However, the Prison Show begins to reverse this isolation by providing an organic solution to the problem of communicating with the imprisoned. The solution works within the barriers formed by intensified imprisonment, and thus, the program gains power by exposing how incarceration has contaminated our ostensibly free public space. As a result of this intervention, listeners and participants of the show begin to understand their shared struggle and can therefore begin to construct activist communities against the prison.