As quickly as I drive previous the East Tempe Church on the outskirts of Livingston, Texas, I can hear the snigger monitor on my radio. It’s from “Martin,” a three-decade-old tv sitcom. The fictional Detroiters’ racy wisecracks appear incongruous crackling via my automotive audio system on a winding nation highway.
When the laughter dies down, the slight Southern lilt of a DJ named “Megamind” cuts in to introduce the following phase.
“Bringing it to you room service-style,” he says, signing off with a catchphrase that’s just a little bit tongue-in-cheek: Like most of his listeners, Megamind doesn’t have a room. He lives on a steel bunk in a most safety jail, and his actual title is Ramy Hozaifeh. To the boys within the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, he’s finest generally known as an everyday voice on 106.5 FM The Tank, the jail’s personal radio station.
The Tank is so low wattage you may solely hear it for a minute or two after you permit the parking zone. However the programming is as plentiful and various as any industrial station on the skin, with exhibits protecting every thing from heavy steel to self-improvement. It’s all recorded in a studio hidden deep contained in the jail and stocked full of apparatus, most of which was donated by church buildings and spiritual teams. It doesn’t have the celebrity or following of San Quentin’s “Ear Hustle” podcast, however The Tank permits males on one of many most restrictive death rows in the country to have a voice that reaches past their cells. Normally — identical to in most lockups — the prisoners at Polunsky usually are not allowed to put in writing letters to one another. However for the radio station, the warden carved out an exception, permitting them to go alongside essays and poems for the workers chaplains to ship to Hozaifeh and his fellow DJs, affording essentially the most remoted males in Texas a uncommon probability to be a part of the jail neighborhood.
Each morning, Hozaifeh performs an episode of “Martin” or “Sanford and Son” — exhibits that also make sense for listeners who can’t see the motion as a result of they’re locked in a cell with no tv. “You’ll be able to hearken to their clowns,” he mentioned. “You don’t should see them in any respect.”
Like most lockups, life within the roughly 3,000-man jail an hour and a half north of Houston is fairly bleak, particularly for the high-security prisoners who spend most of their time in solitary. That features a few hundred males remoted as a result of they’re thought of harmful or in peril, however it additionally consists of practically 200 males on Texas’ dying row. For years, the blokes on the row have been disconnected from the jail’s common inhabitants. They’ll’t go to the mess corridor or the chapel or the primary yard, so more often than not they solely meet their fellow prisoners in passing — like when janitors come by to mop or hand out towels. They’ll’t go to courses or jail jobs, and so they don’t have tablets or televisions. However they do have radios.
The primary time I heard concerning the station was from a person on dying row named John Henry Ramirez. It was every week till he was scheduled to be executed, and I’d visited him to ask about his plea for prison officials to let his Baptist pastor lay a hand on him as he died. He answered my questions on his religion and whether or not he feared dying, however what he actually needed to inform me about was the radio station.
“Once you get out to the parking zone, you may simply tune in, and you will hear,” he mentioned. By the point I bought again exterior, he defined, I may catch the midday information replace with the day’s menu. “It is turn out to be such an enormous a part of Polunsky,” he added. “You need to hear all of the folks discuss it.”
The station began in early 2020, when Warden Daniel Dickerson arrived at Polunsky, and a few prisoners approached him with a query: Would he allow them to begin a radio station?
He’d been requested all kinds of unusual questions within the 24 years he’d labored for the Texas jail system — however this one was a primary. Nonetheless, he determined to listen to the boys out.
“After they defined it and what was going to be completed — and naturally every thing’s pre-recorded, so it may be checked out and reviewed — it didn’t sound like a foul thought,” he mentioned.
In his eyes, it appeared like a radio station may assist give the boys one thing to care about and join with — particularly when the jail was too short-staffed to increase their programming every other approach. And within the early days of the pandemic, Dickerson mentioned, it additionally appeared like a good way to assist prisoners all throughout the power perceive what was happening, even those that couldn’t go away their cells.
“They might not all have TV, however most all people has a radio,” Dickerson informed me. “And anyone who’s been on a cell block is aware of some of us will flip the radio up loud sufficient the place even when you did not have one, you are most likely going to listen to it anyway.”
The primary time he sat down in his workplace and tuned in, he didn’t remorse it.
“It is your individual little jail metropolis radio station,” he mentioned, flashing a cock-eyed grin. “And you’ll stroll round and see the change in folks.”
Whilst a customer, I can see it, too. Normally once I interview males on dying row, we discuss their circumstances or their upcoming dying dates or the situations they dwell in. However now, they rattle off the programming schedule they know by coronary heart. There’s “Clean Groove” — that’s R&B — on Sundays, then rap on Mondays and Latin music on Tuesdays. There’s an evening for Megamind’s conspiracy principle present impressed by “Coast to Coast AM,” and an evening for different music.
“My favourite present is the heavy steel present,” Ramirez mentioned. It’s known as “Tales from the Pit,” and the group of prisoners who host it discuss with themselves as “pit chiefs” and their listeners because the “pit crew.” These days, they’ve taken to referring to Ramirez as a pit chief, too, as a result of he’s written to them so typically, he’s turn out to be part of the present.
In some methods, The Tank is sort of a neighborhood heart for males who can by no means go away their cells. Except for the music and the each day bulletins, the DJs stream information and play soundtracks to films. (The popular style is rom-coms, Hozaifeh confided — however “they actually hate jail films.”)
There are additionally spiritual providers, a Biblical rap present, suicide prevention packages and inventory suggestions from dying row. Typically, the boys interview one another, and as soon as they interviewed the warden. After I visited in October, they interviewed me.
I’d been so drawn in by Ramirez’s enthusiasm throughout our dialog that I needed to return again and see the station. The warden led me via a maze of walkways and hallways earlier than we bought to a tiny room buried inside the power. From the skin, it seemed just like the door to a closet — however inside, the house was crammed with sound tools and computer systems. Aside from the DJ’s white jail uniform, the scene may have been inside an upstart studio anyplace within the exterior world.
When Hozaifeh hit document, we talked some about my life — how I ended up in jail myself and the way I grew to become a reporter afterward. However I’ve been protecting prisons in Texas lengthy sufficient that plenty of the blokes already know this stuff about me, and a few despatched in additional idiosyncratic questions forward of time: What was your favourite factor on commissary? Do you want Madonna, Pearl Jam or Led Zeppelin? Pizza, steak or tofu?
From their cells and bunks, the boys of Polunsky steer the interview. It’s an unlikely strategy to take some measure of management within the closely regulated world of jail, and to listen to their very own phrases on the air at a station run by them and for them.
That’s been a part of the attraction for Jedidiah Murphy, who’s been on dying row for 20 years. Since he began listening to The Tank, he’s been writing in to Megamind’s conspiracy principle present often. Although the quirky content material aligns together with his pursuits, it’s not the primary attraction: It’s the viewers that doesn’t decide him by his previous, as a result of all of them have pasts too.
“When you could have folks in jail that do not even actually CARE concerning the crime or the state of affairs, that’s one thing that many people haven’t seen,” he wrote to me. “That is inmate-run for INMATES.”
The fellows operating the radio station perceive how a lot meaning. They’ve by no means been on dying row, however a lot of them — together with Hozaifeh — have been in solitary, too, and so they know the way disorienting the fixed isolation can turn out to be.
“You simply do not know for those who exist anymore,” Hozaifeh mentioned. “It simply form of removes your humanity from you, and I feel the radio has put that again within the equation.”
In September, a number of days earlier than Ramirez was to be executed for the 2004 killing of a retailer clerk, the blokes who run the heavy steel present curated a playlist for him and performed pre-recorded messages from his inside associates and out of doors supporters. The rap present learn letters from listeners, recounting methods during which his contributions to the station had touched their lives.
As per typical, he tuned in — however this time he bought to reply together with his personal voice. The day earlier than Ramirez was scheduled to go to the dying home, the warden made an unprecedented determination: He let the condemned man go to church. It was a particular service exterior, and there was a sequence hyperlink fence between Ramirez and the choir from Basic Inhabitants — “GP” — however it was nonetheless a primary for dying row. Afterward, The Tank aired the perfect bits for the entire jail to listen to.
When Ramirez spoke, he talked about his regrets and described how he cried as he watched his mom stroll away from her last go to. However he additionally talked concerning the radio station, and the way it had given him one final probability to be a part of a neighborhood.
“I do not know if y’all actually perceive how large that’s as a result of y’all in GP,” he informed the opposite prisoners. “Take a look at how y’all all subsequent to one another. Y’all posted up, y’all strolling round, y’all touching one another. We ain’t bought none of that. Y’all bought neighborhood. We alone, all of us by ourselves.”
Earlier than lengthy, he’d be going some place else alone, taking the final steps to his personal dying in a sterile room an hour away in Huntsville. “Are you aware how large that’s?” he requested. “From all that I took out of the world, all of the detrimental I did, all of the folks I damage…all that egocentric carelessness that I did as an fool little child, now I bought to pay for it as a person.”
As he talked, the boys listening fell silent.
“For years now, the one factor I may do was make it about everybody else,” Ramirez continued, explaining how he poured himself into the station within the hope that he may go away behind one thing good to assist different folks.
“As a result of it is vital to me, man, it is vital to me and that is all I can do. I am alone. I am alone in that cell. That is all I can do is provide you with my phrases.”
At some point later — on the evening he was to be put to dying — the U.S. Supreme Courtroom determined to listen to his enchantment, halting the execution. Now, whereas he waits for the justices to weigh in, Ramirez is again on the row and tuning into The Tank once more, mailing Megamind his ideas and contributions.
After I left from my October go to to the station, I headed off in the other way from which I’d come, pondering of Ramirez and Hozaifeh and the little room crammed with sound tools. I flipped on my radio to 106.5 FM, and listened as Megamind pumped up his listeners, speaking about religion and gratitude and discovering methods to make which means out of life behind bars. Simply after I handed the Greenback Basic, his voice started to fade, changed by the staticky phrases of a distant love tune.