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At one Texas prison, men are building community through radio

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. The nearly 200 men on death row there are isolated from the rest of the prison population. They can't go to mess hall, the chapel, the main yard. They spend most of their time in solitary confinement, but they can contribute and listen to 106.5 FM The Tank, which is the prison's own radio station.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're tuned into the station that will remind you continuously that Jesus is king. Amen.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is life application.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is the pistol class (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Welcome back to another week of life's roundtable (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Good afternoon, gorgeous listeners.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Hello, Polunsky.

CHANG: Those are just a few of the introductions to the various shows ranging from R&B to rap, heavy metal and even conspiracy theory discussions. Keri Blakinger is a journalist who has covered Texas prisons for years. She wrote about this station for the Marshall Project and The Guardian.

Welcome.

KERI BLAKINGER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. So can you just first paint a fuller picture of what daily life is like on death row at the Polunsky Unit?

BLAKINGER: Yeah, so I mean, 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 little, you know - a 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 a 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. There - 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN RAMIREZ: I just took that fool (ph) 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. That 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 it.

CHANG: Can you just tell us, like, how did this moment come about? Like, how did he decide to try 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 is 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 were 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, 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.