I love radio. In fact, I prefer listening to the radio than watching television. Over the years some of the best reporting about the prison industrial complex has taken place in radio. Below is a list of some excellent radio stories about prisons that I wanted to share:
According to the 1880 United States Census, 99% of the nation’s “insane persons” lived at home or in asylums. Only a few hundred were in jail. That was the practice in the U.S. for the next century: Mentally ill people who couldn’t cope on their own were confined in institutions. Most never had the chance to live freely in society—or to get in trouble there.
That has changed. Last year the U.S. Justice Department said 280,000 people with serious mental illnesses were in jail or prison—more than four times the number in state mental hospitals. American RadioWorks explores why.
Prison Diaries takes place inside two correctional facilities: Polk Youth Institution in Butner, NC and the Rhode Island Training School (for juveniles) in Cranston, RI. More than 245 hours of raw tape have been edited into five half-hour documentaries, produced by Joe Richman and Wendy Dorr of Radio Diaries.
Tossing Away the Keys
Recorded in Angola, Louisianna.
Premiered April 29, 1990, on Weekend All Things Considered.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola Prison, is a sprawling old plantation on the Mississippi River. It was named, long ago, for the birthplace of the slaves who were brought here to work the land.
Now, Angola holds more than five-thousand prisoners, mostly African Americans. It still has the look of another time: long straight lines of black men march to work along the levees with shovels over their shoulders. They are trailed by guards on horseback, shotguns resting in their laps.
It used to be that a life sentence in Louisiana meant a maximum of ten years and six months behind bars. But, in the 1970s, the state’s politicians changed the definition. A life sentence in Louisiana now means just that. Unless they’re pardoned by the Governor, inmates today know they will never again see the outside world — that they will die inside Angola prison. Tossing Away the Keys is their story.
Witness to an Execution
Producer: David Isay with Wilbert Rideau and Ron Wikberg / Mix engineer: Anna Maria deFrietas / Photograph by Harvey Wang.
Premiered October 20, 2000, on All Things Considered.
Witness to an Execution tells the stories of the men and women involved with the execution of deathrow inmates at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Narrated by Warden Jim Willett, who oversees all Texas executions, Witness to an Execution documents, in minute-by-minute detail, the process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection. Most of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees interviewed have witnessed over one hundred inmates be put to death. One-third of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977.
The voices in Witness to an Execution tell a rare story. Major Kenneth Dean, a member of the “tie-down” team, describes the act of walking an inmate from his cell to the death chamber. Jim Brazzil, a death house chaplain who has witnessed 114 executions, remembers inmates’ last words to him. Former corrections officer Fred Allen discusses his own mental breakdown, caused, he says, by participating in one too many executions.
Witness to an Execution won a Peabody Award in 2000.
Producers: Stacy Abramson and David Isay / Production Assistant: David Miller / Narrator: Jim Willett / Editor: Gary Covino / Supervising engineer: Caryl Wheeler / Music: Bob Mellman / Music Coordinator: Henry Sapoznik / Executive Producer for All Things Considered: Ellen Weiss / Special thanks to: Larry Fitzgerald, and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice / Photography: Andrew Lichtenstein/Open Society Institute. / Funding provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Open Society Institute.