By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR staff photographer
Stories of hope, recovery and rehabilitation are hitting the airwaves thanks to an inmate-run radio program at San Quentin State Prison (SQSP).
Now in its third year, the hardworking San Quentin Prison Report (SQPR) radio crew can now say they are an award-winning radio station. The inmates, staff and volunteers who create the program were honored with a Society of Professional Journalists Northern California 2014 Excellence in Journalism Award for Community Journalism.
“To me, what makes it exceptionally special is that it’s not just for one person, it’s for a group working together,” said Nigel Poor, the lead volunteer at SQPR. “It’s so wonderful to be able to feel proud about a group of people and have it not just be about one person. Sharing that news with the guys was one of the highlights of my life.”
Those guys make up a creative, efficient, well-trained team of journalists who spend countless hours creating the show, from pitching story ideas to interviewing subjects, transcribing and editing audio – the end result being a professional-quality show.
The program is aired not only on closed circuit to SQSP inmates, but also to the public via the Bay Area’s KALW, the program’s community partner and fellow recipient of the award. In addition to providing a public forum for the show, KALW has also provided training to the inmates on how to produce a radio show.
While KALW does training and provides suggested edits, the entire show is produced by the inmates – right down to the music, which is composed and recorded by inmate David Jassy, a lifelong musician.
“One thing we wanted when we got the training is we wanted to make that we were put in the position to tell our stories and not have somebody else tell our stories,” said inmate Troy Williams. “We’d watch all these shows about prison, and they always talk about prison from somebody else’s perspective. They always talk about it from the bad side; they never talk about redemption, they never talk about transformation, they never talk about the struggles that a person goes through trying to change in this type of environment.”
Williams is a prime example of this – incarcerated for 18 years, he paroled just days after learning about the SPJ award.
In addition to working on SQPR, Williams has been an inmate facilitator of numerous rehabilitation programs, including Victim Offender Education Group, Restorative Justice, Project Choice and San Quentin T.R.U.S.T. (Teaching Responsibility by Utilizing Sociological Training), which assists inmates in positive restoration of themselves, their families and, ultimately, the community.
Williams said being involved in rehabilitative programs was key to being approved for parole.
“Going through the programs allows you to gain the insight and the empathy to relate to your victims and what you did,” he said.
Williams plans to re-enter the film and radio industry, this time from the outside, continuing SQPR’s storytelling. He said he’ll seek out community stories to share, creating a “partnership between the inside and the outside, so we’re covering those issues that are affecting our community.”
Williams said for him, the SPJ award shows the hard work inmates, staff and volunteers put into making the program happen has paid off. He said he’ll proudly attend the Nov. 12 ceremony in San Francisco to accept the award on behalf of all involved.
“It was worth it, because now the community is really hearing our voices,” he said. “They’re really listening to us, and what we have to say has value. That goes a long way, especially when you’ve spent most of your life not feeling that your words have value.”
SQPR program members learn not only about reporting and storytelling, but also develop technical skills that will serve them well on the outside.
All of the equipment and software is donated, often by journalists and multimedia experts who share their knowledge through workshops at SQPR.
The inmates use Pro Tools, the industry standard for editing, which was donated by Mark Jeffery, one of the original engineers of the software. Jeffery also taught the crew how to use it.
It’s these partnerships which make SQPR work, from prison officials supporting the program to outside volunteers giving their time to teach. SQPR members emphasized the work of KALW’s Holly Kernan, named in the award, for her many hours of time volunteering at the prison.
SQPR also produces film projects, under the guidance of TV Specialist Larry Schneider. It was Schneider who convinced Williams to branch out from film to radio, and who was a strong promoter of starting the radio program.
“Maybe it sounds like a cliché, but ‘each one, teach one,’” Schneider said. “When I first came to this prison I had a crew of five guys. I taught them, and at that point they started teaching each other, and we became a room full of teachers teaching each other.”
When asked what the most powerful stories they’ve shared are, the inmates ticked off a list of topics, from a man meeting his son for the first time in prison to the story on an immigrant coming to terms with incarceration.
Williams once shared a story about being denied parole, and Greg Eskridge produced a story about getting out of gangs. But every story, they said, is powerful.
“We have a personal approach to a lot of the stories we tell, because we’re all incarcerated,” Eskridge said. “We know that side, and so to be able to tell an accurate story of somebody else’s life story, we take that really personal.”
Eskridge added that another benefit of being in the program is having a way to share with loved ones the journey of rehabilitation the crew is on.
“For me, it’s really a proud thing to be able to call home and tell my family, ‘Go on this website and hear my story.’ When I left the streets 20 years ago, the only image my family had of me was in a negative way doing negative things out there in the streets,” Eskridge said. “Now, 20 years later, they get to hear me doing something positive.”
The San Quentin Prison Report airs on KALW and is archived at https://kalw.org/term/san-quentin-prison-report.
(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)
Did you know?
San Quentin also features an inmate-produced newspaper. Read more about it at http://www.insidecdcr.ca.gov/2014/06/extra-extra-san-quentins-inmate-journalists-share-their-talents/