With the click of a mouse, anyone in the world can listen to Inside Wire: Colorado Prison Radio day or night. It’s produced and hosted by inmates in four Colorado Department of Corrections’ state prisons, which has installed professional-grade studios at these facilities and funded the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative to manage the station.
Inmates throughout the state prison system can listen to Inside Wire through closed-circuit TVs in their cells. The program is being run by PAI’s arts administrators, aided by former inmates, with a startup cost of $25,000 and an annual budget of $15,000. The radio content is produced by current inmates within the prison system.
Inside Wire is formatted like a regular radio station, with a 24/7 program schedule that can be seen online.
“For instance, we have a weekday-morning show hosted by our incarcerated producers, ‘Inside Wire in the Morning,’ that comes out of Limon Correctional Facility,” said Ryan Conarro, Inside Wire’s general manager and program director.
“It features music plus guests from throughout the facility, sometimes other incarcerated people, sometimes staff.”
Inside Wire offers more musical genres and original spoken word content than most conventional commercial stations. The programming has a distinctive inmate focus — as befits a station that is “radio by prisoners for prisoners,” said Brent Nicholas, the music and sound producer/audio content manager and a former inmate himself.
“It is providing a platform for people inside to change representations of themselves and to actually have their voices heard by each other and the outside world,” he said.
The music mix, production values and presentation quality sound as good as those of any outside-the-walls broadcaster — as befits a station run by people with a passion for radio.
Unexpected COVID benefit
Inside Wire owes its existence to COVID-19.
The pandemic forced the shutdown of many in-person programs delivered by the Prison Arts Initiative, programs that helped Colorado state prison inmates improve their life skills, boost their morale and get ready to re-entering society when their sentences are served.
Like other organizations during the pandemic, the Prison Arts Initiative turned to remote methods to provide content to inmates via CCTV. This is when the lightbulb turned on.
“Hey, we can broadcast that synchronously to all facilities using our closed-circuit TV network,” Conarro said. (Inmates purchase their electronic devices from the state, and most choose TVs for their cells over other types.)
Then things got moving: Audio production studios were built at the state prisons and Inside Wire went live on CCTV and online on March 1 of this year.
The value of providing inmates with the ability to produce their own radio content is significant, according to Seth Ready. He is a communications associate with Prison Arts Initiative and manager of the Inside Wire Hotlines audio bulletin board.
“I served 15 years in the Department of Corrections and I’ve been out for 12 years,” Ready told Radio World. “I took hands-on courses on both the production and microphone sides of radio. And to this day, creating radio has been the favorite job I have had in life.”
To get a sense of radio’s inspirational value for inmates, Radio World spoke via video conference with five Inside Wire producers/hosts at Limon Correctional Facility, all of whom are imprisoned there.
Anthony Quintana Jr. is Inside Wire’s engineer of operations. He leapt at the chance to take part in the project.
“What I really am passionate about is the visions that drive Inside Wire,” Quintana said. “It’s really easy for media outlets to talk about all the negatives that happen inside prison and after people are released. What we do is show the positive things, the transformations of men and women here who are really, really trying to improve their lives and be prepared to rejoin society and do the right thing.”
Tuesday morning radio host and Engagement Director Jody Aguirre shares Quintana’s passion. “Through radio, we are giving a voice to the voiceless, letting people know who we are and not what they’ve been told that we are,” he said.
Aguirre is also hoping to address the public’s prejudices towards prisoners through the station’s global web stream. “We are hoping to change the narrative that’s out there,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard task because people want to hang onto that ‘movie script’ of us, if you will. You know what I mean? And we’re not that.”
Making a difference
Just like local radio, the listener-focused information, entertainment and sense of connection being delivered via Inside Wire is making their hosts known and respected in their communities. Inside Wire Production Manager Joaquin Mares learned this when he spoke outside the studio with a passing inmate who had just transferred in from another facility.
“He asked about what I did here, and I said, ‘I’m on the radio’,” Mares recalled. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I like your show. It’s cool what you guys are doing.’”
Inside Wire’s inmate-produced/hosted content is making life better for friends and family on the outside.
“A couple of months ago we were given the opportunity to start bringing in co-hosts (from the inmate population) and sometimes our co-hosts will do a whole four-hour show with us,” said Features Manager Benny Hill.
“One co-host told me that it was really cool that his family was able to spend four hours with him that morning by listening in, because they otherwise wouldn’t be able to come out to the prison and visit him. They felt like they were spending time with that person, just over the radio.”
For Inside Wire Music Manager Darrius Turner, being on the radio as an inmate producer/host is a positive way to support his listeners.
“People at other prisons and in the ‘free world’ have been writing to me with expressions of gratitude, and telling me that I give other minorities hope,” he said. “For me, that’s just the biggest milestone: To know that I’m doing the right thing and being of service to the community behind the walls, as well as the communities on the street.”
In the studio
Inside Wire’s four prison studios are equipped with Rodecaster Pro Podcast Production Studios; Audio-Technica mics, pop filters, booms and headphones; ClearSonic baffles and soundproofing; Sony ICD portable digital recorders; and Reaper digital audio workstation software.
The studios were designed by consulting engineer Jonathan Howard, who works in the arts community and teaches sound design/audio production at the Denver School of the Arts.
Because prisoners are not allowed to access the internet, finished shows are dubbed onto USB devices, which Ryan Conarro picks up and takes to the outside world for streaming.
You can find the program schedule here.
The language of radio
In my conversations with these inmates, we conversed as mutual lovers of radio. We used a common language that anyone who revels in this profession employs. We were talking with one another as radio people.
This said, the inmates were well aware of their environs, and it is likely that their loss of freedoms makes creating radio even more precious to them and inspires the passion in the content that they share online.
Hill puts it this way. “Well, I have life without parole, and I may never get out of prison. But one of the things that I hope is that Inside Wire is a contributor to the way prisons are run, and for the better. I hope that Inside Wire will help change the views of the public who sees movies like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and feel like they’ve got it all figured out about what prisoners do in prison, because that’s the furthest from the truth. And hopefully Inside Wire will bring people in who have gotten out and become success stories to talk to our listeners, and shine a light on the fact that we’re not all monsters in here.”
You can hear “Inside Wire” at www.coloradoprisonradio.com.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Ryan Conarro’s last name.