Radio is perhaps the only uncensored form of media available inside prisons and jails. It can’t be restricted like the internet or mail that’s opened ahead of time.
Public radio’s availability to incarcerated people is one reason why criminal justice reporter Shannon Heffernan said she heard from prisoners when her stories appeared on the radio broadcast of Chicago Public Media’s WBEZ but not Motive, a station podcast that devoted a season to Illinois prisons but wasn’t accessible to the prison population.
“People inside can’t connect to Apple Podcasts or Spotify the same way they can listen to the radio,” said Heffernan, who left WBEZ and joined the criminal justice news outlet The Marshall Project in August. “I wanted to make sure that some piece of this project was not just about them but for them.”
Heffernan’s idea led to the show Prisoncast!, which will air its second broadcast Sunday on WBEZ and Illinois Public Radio stations across the state. The first Prisoncast! aired in August 2022.
The two-hour radio program is driven entirely by requests from people incarcerated in Illinois prisons and jails. WBEZ initially worked with more than a dozen organizations that do outreach to incarcerated people to gather submissions, said Alex Keefe, WBEZ’s engagement editor and leader of the Prisoncast! project.
The station received about 70 requests for the first broadcast and about 150 requests for the second broadcast. They came from 22 Illinois Department of Corrections Facilities, Cook County Jail and a federal prison.
“We’ve also heard from loved ones of people in prison here from all over Illinois, as well as Indiana, California, Michigan, England, the Netherlands and Sweden,” Keefe said. “I have a giant stack of letters at my desk, and I got back to everyone who wrote in. I got a lot more letters this time, and I will write back to all of them.”
Keefe said he’s been in contact with nearly 200 people in prison since the first broadcast aired. He said WBEZ also heard from a few dozen listeners outside of prison, including one woman who shared how her family across the state, including her son in prison, listened at the same time.
Following the response to the first broadcast, the station engaged the Illinois Department of Corrections directly to have a request form for the second one placed on tablets that prisoners can use.
A push for news and information
The first broadcast focused on things that bring joy to people on the inside, like the sound of children laughing or rain falling on a tin roof. It also included requested songs and segments about how incarcerated parents can maintain relationships with their children and how to prepare for release from prison.
Incarcerated people who heard the first broadcast said they wanted more information about laws and policies, according to Ayana Contreras, director of content at Chicago Public Media’s Vocalo and the host of Prisoncast! They also asked for investigations into why commissary prices are so high and the different ways that someone can be released from prison. The second broadcast will address all of these topics.
“We know that misinformation is running full tilt in the regular world. I can’t even imagine what it’s like inside,” Contreras said. “One of the first things I heard after the first broadcast was that people wanted more news and information about things that impact their day-to-day lives.”
As she’s writing the script, Contreras said she tries to keep the show’s intended audience, Illinois prisoners and their families, at the forefront of her mind while also creating a program that WBEZ’s core audience can learn from.
“I always think that you have a target audience, but you have these tertiary people who really could learn something,” Contreras said. “There were people who really don’t have any connection to folks on the inside that learned something or got a glimpse of someone’s humanity from this show that is still centering this very specific audience.”
Centering the incarcerated audience also informed the way Contreras wrote the program’s script and how the WBEZ staffers who contributed to Prisoncast! approached their reporting.
“You hear that voice in your head, as you’re reading a script or interacting with a person on a two-way, and you wonder if you’re asking the questions they would ask,” Contreras said.
A new addition for the second broadcast was “Outside Together: A Celebration for Loved Ones of People in Prison,” an event that took place Saturday at the Gary Corner Youth Center in Chicago. Keefe said about 60 people attended the event, which included a bounce house, face painting and family portraits that will be mailed to those inside.
“We wanted to create a moment of joy and recognition for families that go through this,” Keefe said. “These children and families aren’t convicted of anything, but they experience the hardship that goes with having a loved one in prison.”
Part of public media’s mission
Keefe said that while not every station has resources for a program like Prisoncast!, any investment in creating content for incarcerated listeners is worth pursuing.
“Public radio in particular is uniquely situated to be able to do something like this in so many places, because radio being just this old fuddy-duddy medium actually has reached into a lot of prisons, whereas many other things like the internet don’t,” Keefe said. “Even if you start small by taking requests or doing a few interviews, you’re still elevating voices that you hardly hear from at all.”
Heffernan said radio serves as a connection for people inside prisons and their family members outside, and that connection is at the heart of public media’s mission.
“We in public media signed up for this work because we believe it can be a communal experience and connect people to communities,” Heffernan said. “It’s not just people inside, It’s also their family members. It’s not a specialized audience, because incarceration affects a large portion of the country and we should be serving them.”
Keefe said anyone interested in starting a prison engagement program at their station is welcome to email him to learn more about WBEZ’s work in this area.