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Inmate-produced radio station streams beyond prison walls

Inside Wire, available 24/7 to incarcerated people in Colorado and to online listeners around the world, is said to offer a chance for prisoners and those they harmed to heal.
Inmate Benny Hill, a features director and producer for Inside Wire
Inmate Benny Hill, a features director and producer for Inside Wire, listens while interviewing for an audio piece at Limon Correctional Facility in Limon, Colo., on March 4.Rachel Woolf for NBC News

LIMON, Colo. — Herbert Alexander stares at the sound waves jumping on the computer screen in front of him, his shaved head partially covered by headphones. He’s editing a short audio feature on incarcerated fathers, a subject with which he is intimately familiar. 

His two sons will soon hear his voice and his story because Alexander, 46, an inmate at Limon Correctional Facility, is preparing a segment for Inside Wire: Colorado Prison Radio, billed as the first radio station to be produced inside a prison and available to the world outside.

Other radio stations created in prisons generally air only within the walls of their lockups, but Inside Wire, which premiered March 1, reaches all 21 prisons in the state and beyond, online and by app, making the first of its kind in the country, organizers said. 

“In spaces where isolation continues, this medium can cut through that,” said Ryan Conarro, general manager and program director of Inside Wire and creative producer for the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative, which oversees the program in partnership with the Colorado Department of Corrections.

“Our listeners can feel heard and can feel like there’s a companion with them, even when they’re in great isolation in whatever space they’re in,” added Conarro, whose group offers therapeutic and educational arts programming to incarcerated individuals, from full-fledged theater productions to the “With(in)” podcast to a news publication written by inmates.

The interior yard at Limon Correctional Facility in Limon, Colo.Rachel Woolf for NBC News

Inside Wire — a collaboration among three Colorado prisons: Limon, Sterling Correctional Facility, and Denver Women’s Correctional Facility — streams 24/7 to the other prison complexes via closed-circuit television. The public can stream the station online or via the Inside Wire app and listen to its mix of music, bulletins, interviews with residents and staff members and original audio features. All the programming is recorded and reviewed by corrections staff before airing; so far, nothing has been rejected.

Limon, about 90 miles southeast of Denver, forms the nucleus of the sprawling project. Alexander and the rest of the six-man production team work out of a carpeted classroom with a small sound booth in one corner next to a long table lined with computers. Family photos and comics are taped to some screens and walls; a microwave oven and coffee maker sit by the door.

From left, Limon Correctional Facility inmates Dante Larks, software developer for Inside Wire, Benny Hill, features director and producer, and Herbert Alexander, production director and producer.Rachel Woolf for NBC News

The men earn four cents a day and work at least two 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shifts each week. Inside Wire counts as their facility job and can earn them a certificate in audio production from the University of Denver.

“There are times when you want to give up, but it’s too important,” said Jody Aguirre, 58, Inside Wire’s engagement director, who has been incarcerated for almost three decades on a murder conviction.

He credits a well-timed song on the radio with preventing his own suicide attempt many years ago while in solitary confinement.

“There are people in here who don’t have families, who don’t have anybody other than our radio. … If I can be that voice, I can give them that, a gift of life,” he said. “Or bring joy and make them dance.”

Jody Aguirre talks to a fellow inmate before doing an interview for Inside Wire.Rachel Woolf for NBC News

His colleague, Alexander, said he initially applied to the team for its vocational possibilities, but he has since realized it's more than just a job.

“What I’m doing here, the history that we’re making here, pioneering this, it’s history,” said Alexander, who's been incarcerated for about 13 years for aggravated robbery. “So, when he [my son] is talking with his friends, and his friends are saying, ‘My dad is the manager here’ or ‘My dad is a doctor,” he can still feel somewhat proud of, ‘Hey, my dad was in the joint, but he started a radio station, and I’m proud of him for doing that.’

“And that’s what means something to me,” he continued. “I think if we do the right thing, we can inspire other people, once they see what we’re doing, inspire them to want to do better.”

Since the station started, prison staff members and incarcerated individuals have been jostling for the chance to be interviewed on air, the producers said.

“We haven’t built up the opportunity to hear the narratives of the good, hard, deep, complex work that folks inside are doing on themselves and in their community, in the way that they’re living,” said Ashley Hamilton, co-founder and executive director of the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative. “It’s not just a radio station — it’s also a vehicle for an opportunity for healing.”

Inmate Darrius D. Turner in the recording room at Limon Correctional Facility
Inmate Darrius D. Turner in the recording room.Rachel Woolf for NBC News

Dean Williams, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, took the job in 2019 with a goal of reducing the state’s recidivism rate, among the highest in the country at nearly 50 percent, by trying to make the experience of incarceration less traumatizing. The radio station supports that effort, he said.

“It’s one more piece of ground to take in changing the system,” Williams said. “It has an opportunity to change the narrative, not only for the people who live here, and hopefully for the people who work here, but also for the public.”

Williams will host Inside Wire’s weekly “Up to the Minute With Dean Williams,” which features one-on-one conversations between him and incarcerated individuals.

Anthony Quintana, 51, Inside Wire’s engineer and operations director and assistant music director, who was convicted of murder in 1989, said the station gives inmates an opportunity to connect with their families and the families of those they hurt.

“I harmed people coming in here,” Quintana said. “Hopefully, down the road, some of the victims in all of our lives, they can see that we’re trying to live in a way that is honoring those people by how we live our lives in here.”