Several returning citizens, previously residents of San Quentin State Prison, joined prison staffers and producers of a public radio station for the first ever Prison Radio International Conference in Oslo, Norway, in mid-June. The producers were from radio station KALW, which airs Uncuffed, a program produced by incarcerated broadcasters in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).
About 100 people attended the conference from at least a dozen countries, including Denmark, Norway, USA, India, Israel, Germany, United Kingdom, and Hungary.
“My number one take-away from the trip is the importance of staff support for incarcerated people to produce content,” said CDCR Television Specialist Skyler Brown. “Our goal, as a group, is to continue growing with more support from the government side from each of our prison systems.”
Formerly incarcerated journalist Nate Mcinney was trained by KALW while serving time at San Quentin State Prison. The former SQNews Managing Editor attended the conference.
“The big take-away, if the structure is set up, [is] there are people who are more than willing to participate in anything while incarcerated,” McKinney said. “The model that California set up, the ‘lock ’em up and throw away the key,’ doesn’t work, but preparing people for jobs and opportunities works.”
Brown said the conference was an opportunity for corrections departments to further their goals to reduce recidivism through narratives that support rehabilitative services.
“It’s a direct line of communication, especially radio stations, from CDCR to the general public,” Brown said.
Incarcerated Uncuffed producer Greg Eskridge said, “KALW wants to give us the opportunity to tell our story about prison life. They bring the professionalism in producing, but they’re very hands-off on the content of the story.”
He added, “For too long the public has only had perspective about prisons from people who never lived inside a prison and that perspective is always skewed. If you really want to know about prison, then talk to people who wake up in prison every day and go to sleep in prison.”
Eskridge took issue with mainstream media coming inside San Quentin to “tell our stories.” He felt that incarcerated people should be able to tell their own stories. He got his wish when Holly Kernan of KQED, independent producer Nancy Mullane, and creator of Pro Tools, Mark Jefferies, came inside San Quentin to train the incarcerated broadcasters how to produce audio stories.
“Nate McKinney is a great [example] of someone who made a bad choice, came to prison, changed his life, obtained numerous skills and then got out there to represent the program. [Nate] makes me extremely proud,” Eskridge said. “He brought so much life experience and wealth to the program. He lifted the program to a higher level.”
Currently, KALW producers Ben Trefney and Nina Gaensler-Debes support the program.
While in Norway, the KALW crew visited RøverRadion, a Norwegian prison radio program, and took questions from San Quentin’s incarcerated journalists for Norway’s incarcerated people, formerly incarcerated people, prison staff, and RøverRadion’s staff.
RøverRadion broadcasts weekly for half an hour on a government-owned information channel that serves incarcerated listeners. The station, which reports on news and culture and hosts a podcast, touts that they are the only prison radio show in the world broadcast on a nationwide government channel that reaches an audience outside of prison walls.
RøverRadion’s website reads, “RøverRadion is freedom of expression in practice. In the past, it has been difficult for prisoners as a social group to express themselves. In order to have a full-fledged democracy, everyone’s voice must be heard, yes, even those who have done things that are not allowed. The prison population has a predominance of people who have less resources and less opportunity to participate in the public debate. This opportunity is opened through RøverRadion. The fact that the program is accessible to everyone gives people on the outside an insight into a stigmatized and mythical part of society, which can contribute to new perspectives, bridge-building and increase understanding,” (translated from Norwegian by Google).
The itinerary of the Norway visit included tours of prisons, a reentry house and a meeting with local activists.
Before the 1990s, Norwegian prisons were run similarly to prisons in the U.S. Incarcerated people were locked in cells and there was a strong culture of punishment.
Incarceration as punishment wasn’t effective. As many as 70% of Norwegians were re-arrested and returned to prison within two years. After the 1990s, Norwegian prisons started changing toward a culture of rehabilitation and humanistic practices, while at the same time, sentencing laws began to change.
The change followed three basic principles:
Normality: meaning that life inside prisons should resemble life on the outside as much as possible.
Progression: from the moment someone enters prison, the aim is to prepare that person for when they are released.
Dynamic security: correctional officers routinely socialize with incarcerated people, joining them for meals and talking through problems. Officers are trained to use force when absolutely necessary, but also study law, ethics, human rights, and the science of behavioral change.
Norway’s incarceration rate is 57 out of every 100,000 persons, while 549 out of every 100,000 Californians are incarcerated.
Norway’s recidivism rate is less than 30%, while recivism in California exceeds 50%.