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This Radio Show Connects People Behind Bars With the Outside World

Prisoncast! — a special audio project from WBEZ Chicago — brings the sounds of life beyond prison walls to incarcerated people in Illinois.

Darrius Turner, a Black man with glasses, works on radio equipment and wears headphones in a studio.
Darrius Turner works on show prep at the Limon Correctional Facility in Limon, Colorado, for “Inside Wire,” a prison radio station. The Marshall Project collaborated with WBEZ on the second edition of “Prisoncast,” a radio show for incarcerated people and their loved ones.

Radio is a lifeline behind bars. Unlike books, magazines or physical mail, it’s one of the hardest forms of communication for prisons to censor, keeping incarcerated people connected to the world outside. In recent years, incarcerated people have even taken to the airwaves to share their own stories from the inside, recording podcasts like Ear Hustle and Inside Wire from recording studios in prison.

Enter Prisoncast!, a special audio project for people inside Illinois prisons and their loved ones on the outside. In September, The Marshall Project collaborated with the show’s creators at WBEZ, Vocalo Radio and Illinois Public Radio for the show’s second edition. The show airs on public radio stations across Illinois, reaching thousands of people incarcerated throughout the state.

Prisoncast! has a unique goal: to use radio to create an experience families can share — even when separated by miles of road, walls and razor wire. To pull this off, the show’s producers solicit requests and questions from people behind bars and their families.

Two Marshall Project staffers helped answer questions from the incarcerated listeners on the show. Shannon Heffernan, the cofounder of Prisoncast!, who joined The Marshall Project in September, responded to people’s criminal justice questions. She dug into the future of parole and clemency in Illinois, two issues dozens of people wanted to know more about. She also answered questions about recent developments in prison healthcare and deteriorating buildings and infrastructure inside Illinois prisons.

The Marshall Project · Shannon Heffernan Answers Incarcerated People's Criminal Justice Questions

Another requester wanted to know why they were now paying more for commissary items. Earlier this year, The Marshall Project reported on inflation behind bars, finding that due to additional markups on goods, inflation price hikes are even worse in prison. For Prisoncast!, Nicole Lewis, The Marshall Project’s engagement editor, found that Illinois prisons have emergency contracts with multiple vendors after years of commissary shortages. The prisons also charge a 25% markup for people in prison.

The Marshall Project · Nicole Lewis Explains Why Commissary Items Are Now More Expensive

The show also uses sound to offset the sensory deprivation that accompanies lock-up. In addition to offering interviews and practical information, the broadcasts solicit music dedications and sound requests. People have requested hearing the sounds of waves at Lake Michigan or the official announcements during the Chicago Bulls starting lineup.

To hear the full episode, head over to WBEZ Chicago.

A holiday edition of Prisoncast! is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 17. Click here for more information on how to submit a request or participate in the show, or email the WBEZ team at prisoncast@wbez.org.

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Nicole Lewis Twitter Email is the engagement editor for The Marshall Project, leading the organization’s strategic efforts to deepen reporting that reaches communities most affected by the criminal legal system.

Shannon Heffernan Twitter Email is a staff writer for The Marshall Project covering prison conditions, experiences of the incarcerated, their families and corrections officers, the federal Bureau of Prisons and the death penalty. Heffernan joins The Marshall Project from WBEZ in Chicago, where she covered prisons and jails in Illinois over her 15 years as a public radio reporter, examining issues such as abuse and misconduct by prison guards. During her tenure at WBEZ, she was the lead reporter and host of Season Four of WBEZ’s “Motive,” a podcast investigating abuse and corruption in small town prisons in Illinois. Her work has been honored with a National Murrow Award for best writing and a National Headliner Award, among many others.