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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello, Polunsky.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Allan B. Polunsky Unit, a maximum-security prison in southeast Texas, is home to one of the most restrictive death rows in the country.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Welcome to another week of roundtable discussions on life (ph).

CHANG: The approximately 200 death row inmates spend most of their time there in solitary confinement, isolated from the rest of the prison population.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Are we sure or what?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah, let’s go, baby.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Let’s go?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: While we’re (unintelligible) tales from the pit.

CHANG: They can’t go to class or watch TV, but they can listen to and contribute to 106.5 FM The Tank.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Alright, my friends, it’s time to wake up. The world is awake and waiting for you. What are you going to present today?

CHANG: CONSIDER THIS – research has long shown that solitary confinement can have devastating effects on physical and mental health. Coming soon is how a prison radio station is giving inmates who can’t leave their cells a sense of community and a way to be heard.

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CHANG: From NPR, I’m Ailsa Chang. Today is Thursday January 13.

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CHANG: This is CONSIDERING THIS from NPR. Solitary confinement can cause health problems like heart damage and depression and increased sensitivity to sounds, smells and light. It can also affect former inmates’ ability to socialize and connect with other people once they are released. According to estimates from Solitary Watch and The Marshall Project, the number of prisoners in solitary confinement increased during the height of the pandemic to around 300,000.

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CHANG: Even before the pandemic, the policy of the Polunsky unit was that men on death row be held in solitary confinement. They do not share meals or leisure. And they cannot have physical contact with their family. So it’s easy to imagine why 106.5 FM The Tank has become such a big part of their lives.

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JOHN HENRY RAMIREZ: And thank you all so much, all of you, man, those who have the equipment, those who put it together, everyone who dedicates their time to The Tank. I don’t care what you do, you work the switchboard, you clean the floors, you pick up the trash, I love you all boys. I love what you offer us. You give us a community.

CHANG: This is John Henry Ramirez, a death row inmate addressing a small group of prisoners at a special church service. We will know more about him a little later.

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KERI BLAKINGER: The director and some other staff expressed that it gave some of the guys, you know, something to look forward to, being part of a community.

CHANG: Keri Blakinger is a journalist who has covered Texas prisons for years. She visited the Polunsky unit several times.

BLAKINGER: You know, it kind of gives them a reason not to act as well. You know, they all want to be able to keep their radios on and stay in touch.

CHANG: With each other. So I spoke with Blakinger about his reporting, and started by asking him to paint a fuller picture of daily life on death row at the Polunsky unit.

BLAKINGER: It’s pretty stark both for the guys on death row and for a few hundred other guys who are in largely constant solitary confinement. You know, it’s a bit like being locked in your bathroom for years or months. They only receive one five-minute phone call every 90 days. So a lot of their communication with the general population thus far had been in the form of sort of clandestine notes that get, you know, slipped under the door and the janitor, like, sweeps them up and brings them to whoever it would be. And that’s kind of the extent of their communication with the rest of the prison.

CHANG: Well, in the middle of this dark and rather austere existence that you describe, there is this radio station, The Tank. I’m just curious about the origin story. For example, how did the station get started in the middle of all this?

BLAKINGER: Yeah. I think a lot of the credit for that goes to the director who is willing to take a chance. Around the start of the pandemic, this prison had a new warden, Warden Dickerson. And the guys from the chaplaincy program, the prisoner chaplaincy program, asked if they could start a radio station. They received materials donated by religious groups and local churches. So they started this radio station, built a little room full of equipment in the middle of this maximum security prison.

CHANG: Well, can you give us an idea of ​​the wider variety of programs that have aired on the station? For example, what is the most popular content or some of the things you personally found most interesting while listening?

BLAKINGER: So some of the things you mentioned before, like there’s a heavy metal show. There are alternative waves, which are, 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. They have financial advice from a guy on death row. One of the things I found most interesting was that they show movies for the blind – like movies with narration – 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. This one had never occurred to me.

CHANG: That’s so cool, yeah.

BLAKINGER: Apparently they really like romantic comedies and hate prison movies.

CHANG: Well, you write a lot about this prisoner, John Henry Ramirez, a death row inmate who, literally on the day of his scheduled execution, the Supreme Court decided to hear his appeal. And before discussing his relationship with this radio station, can you tell us a little more about him?

BLAKINGER: Yes, of course. So John Ramirez had been on death row for over a decade when I met him, and he was there for stabbing a Corpus Christi convenience store employee to death in 2004.

CHANG: That’s right. And there was a moment this fall when it looked like Ramirez was definitely going to be executed on schedule, and he spoke to The Tank listeners. Let’s hear what he had to say.

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RAMIREZ: I just took that jerk from his kids and his wife and his friends, and I can never give anything back like that, no matter how good I do. And it hurts me so much, man. It hurts me so much and I’m trying so hard to do so much better. And I try to encourage people around me to do so. And The Tank helped me. The Tank gave me an avenue to do it.

CHANG: Can you just tell us, for example, how did this moment come about? For example, how did he decide to go on the radio and express his feelings like that?

BLAKINGER: It’s just – yeah, it’s such an amazing clip. It was the night before his execution when the warden decided to let him hold a church service in the outdoor recreation area. And, you know, he talked for 10 minutes to the other prisoners who were there. And he just, you know, bared his soul, and it’s such an amazing moment, partly because he’s a prisoner talking to other prisoners. That’s how they talk to each other. He doesn’t do it in the hope that the rest of the world will listen to him. But, you know, they recorded it and played it later on The Tank. And then after I visited the radio station, they sent me this clip, and I was blown away.

CHANG: And how did the other prisoners react to Ramirez’s remarks? Do you know?

BLAKINGER: Yeah. At the beginning of this you can hear them cheering some. And then, as he continues to speak, they fall silent. And I can only imagine that they were as moved as I was. I mean, it’s just a piece of the clip. The whole speech lasted about 10 minutes, and it’s really extraordinary.

CHANG: Well, I know that, you know, you had a chance to talk to Ramirez a bit. What did he say about what this station meant to him during his time on death row?

BLAKINGER: I think he’s kind of starting to get the hang of it in this little clip you’re hearing, but it seems like a lot of that is him — his way of leaving something good in the world. You know, he talks about the wrongs he’s done and the things he regrets in the past. And there’s so little you can do, so little you can leave behind, so little change you can make in the world from inside a solitary cell. And like he said at one point, you know, all he can leave you with is his words, and he did.

CHANG: You had this other quote from another inmate there who wrote to you about the station. And he says in part that what draws him to The Tank is that, quote-unquote, “it’s run by inmates for inmates.” Can you explain to us why this is so important – run by inmates for inmates?

BLAKINGER: Yeah. I think in a way it kind of creates a safe space almost when you know you have this very specific experience that most people will really judge you for, but your audience is mostly people who deeply understand that .

CHANG: I understand that you yourself were incarcerated for just under two years for possession of heroin. What would it have been like while you were in prison to have something like The Tank as a source of connection with other people who are also incarcerated? What would that have meant to you?

BLAKINGER: I was lucky that where I was in prison, we didn’t spend, you know, months or years in solitary confinement. So we already had a bit more access to the community. But I think it also touches on something else – you know, the kind of idea that we’re all here because we know we have – you know, we did something wrong. And it’s a way to leave a positive mark, much like exactly what John Ramirez says. And I feel like that’s now what I do every day in my journalism.

CHANG: Well, thank you for your work and for this amazing report on this radio station. This is Keri Blakinger, a journalist who has covered Texas prisons for years and who has written about The Tank for The Marshall Project and The Guardian.

Thank you very much for being with us.

BLAKINGER: Thank you for inviting me.

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CHANG: This is CONSIDERING THIS FROM NPR. I am Ailsa Chang.

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