Inside Wire: Connecting Colorado’s Prison Population to the Airwaves

Listeners inside and outside the Colorado prison system can now listen to music, stories, news and entertainment via Inside Wire: Colorado Jail Radio. Inside Wire is created by and for incarcerated residents of Colorado. Launched on March 1, it is the latest project designed by the University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative (OF IAP).

“We are the first statewide prison radio station in the country and the first in the world to broadcast to the public,” says Ashley Hamilton, assistant professor of theater and co-founder and executive director of DU PAI, a program which provides educational creative artistic experiences to enrich the lives of incarcerated people.

The radio station got its start in late 2020 when the DU PAI team began dreaming up ways to connect with the prison population during the pandemic. Hamilton has worked within the US correctional system for nearly a decade, most recently with the Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC). The team pitched the idea to CDOC, and they were very receptive, she says.

Ryan Conarro, DU PAI’s Creative Media Specialist, spearheaded the project. He brings his radio and media production experience to his role on Inside Wire’s General Manager and Program Director.

Conarro began consulting Phil Maguire, founder and chief executive of the Prison Radio Association which runs National Prison Radio in the UK, the world’s first national radio station for prisoners and a model for Inside Wire. The two met regularly throughout the spring of 2021, and Maguire shared what he learned and the mistakes that were made. He also shared a set of policies they use to get content clearance from the UK Department of Corrections.

“It was very helpful for us because they had already done so much work years ago, like thinking through all the different possible pieces that need to be considered,” says Conarro.

He and the core team of producers at Inside Wire collaboratively reviewed the policies, then presented it to the CDOC saying, “Here is our proposal for our own boundaries that we intend to stay within. Do you agree? They accepted,” he says.

It now functions as a handbook for incoming producers so that there is a common understanding of the content.

Inside Wire broadcasts 24/7 from radio studios in three locations: Limon, home to the core team, Sterling, and Denver Women’s Correctional Facilities. Conarro works with a total of 15 producers imprisoned on the three sites.

Conarro says his role as facilitator allows producers inside the facilities “to tell their stories, get the music on the air, keep the airwaves alive, and cultivate that sense of connection.”

It also equips producers inside the facilities to be facilitators for other people.

“The people we’ve identified to be part of these core teams at each facility have signed on in part because they want to be part of building something from scratch,” Conarro says. “It’s not just about them. Part of their role is to expand opportunities beyond this room.

According to Conarro, “producer” is a catch-all term, meaning that every person produces content. For example, the production department produces spots for broadcast.

“Instead of commercial breaks, we have one-off breaks where you might get a public service announcement, you might get a health and fitness tip, you might have a moment of reflection. The whole series of spots – the writing, the voice, the messaging, the underlining – it was all designed by the teams inside,” he says.

The feature film department illuminates life inside through interviews and stories. The music department manages the music library, programming and musical performances. And the engagement department tracks feedback and participation from across the institution.

After working for a rural community radio station in Nome, Alaska, Conarro learned the ins and outs of the business. He expects the same from his Inside Wire producers.

“I thought it was important and useful that everyone in each of these three teams knew how to do everything,” he said.

Inner thread DU PAI

Hamilton says Conarro was instrumental in getting the project started and training growers. She gives the example of a producer who has been incarcerated for 30 years, since the beginnings of personal computers.

“I don’t know if he ever touched a computer when he started with us,” Hamilton said. “The day they set up all the recording equipment, he turned to Ryan and said, ‘I feel like a janitor on a spaceship.'”

A year later, he created the launch broadcast.

All Inside Wire content is pre-recorded and reviewed by Conarro and the DU PAI team before being submitted to the CDOC for final approval. They currently have a stash of content that goes back several weeks.

“One of the joys of doing this in this setting is that there is so much enthusiasm, excitement and eagerness in the facilities to be a part of it. [We’ll never] missing for people who want to produce, who want to share their story, who want to host a music show,” he says.

Inside Wire is one of many projects initiated by DU PAI, including a statewide newspaper, a statewide creative magazine, a podcast that spans three prisons and courses which are offered in 12 prisons three times a year.

Hamilton calls Inside Wire another connection tool.

“I think there’s a sense of connection that could come from hearing people you identify with, other incarcerated people. The station is really geared towards supporting incarcerated people. Our programming is really about benefiting them,” she says.

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