Recommended Listening

The following is a selected list of radio documentaries that tell personal accounts of life inside the criminal justice system.

Produced by Radio Diaries.
Five inmates, four correctional officers, and a judge used tape recorders to keep audio journals. The diarists recorded the sounds and scenes of everyday life behind bars: shakedowns, new inmate arrivals, roll call, monthly family visits, meals at the chow hall, and quiet moments late at night inside a cell. The series is an intimate and surprising portrait of prison life, recorded in a way that has never been done before.

360degrees collaborated with Prison Diaries to produce our first two stories, John Mills and Cristel.

Produced by Soundportraits.
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, one-third of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas. Witness to an Execution tells the stories of the men and women involved with the execution of death-row inmates at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas. Narrated by Warden Jim Willett, who oversees all Texas executions, Witness to an Execution documents, in minute-by-minute detail, the process of carrying out an execution by lethal injection. Most of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice employees interviewed have witnessed over 100 inmates being put to death.

Produced by Soundportraits.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola Prison, is a sprawling old plantation on the Mississippi River. It was named, long ago, for the birthplace of the slaves who were brought here to work the land. Now, Angola holds more than 5,000 prisoners, mostly African Americans. It still has the look of another time: black men with shovels over their shoulders march long straight lines to work along the levees. They are trailed by guards on horseback, shotguns resting in their laps. It used to be that a life sentence in Louisiana meant a maximum of ten years and six months behind bars. But, in the 1970s, the state's politicians changed the definition. A life sentence in Louisiana now means just that. Unless they're pardoned by the governor, inmates today know they will never again see the outside world—that they will die inside Angola prison. Tossing Away the Keys is their story.

Produced by This American Life.
This hour-long show looks at the lives of inmates and their families, from a call-in radio show for prisoners and their families in Texas, to prison visiting rooms packed with children on Mother's Day. The second-half of the show features a reading of a pamphlet written by ex-con Stephen Donaldson for heterosexual men who are about to enter prison and an interview with former South African political prisoner Breyten Breytenbach, who tells how prison changes all your perceptions, and changes them in ways that last after you've been released.

Produced by This American Life.
We've all heard occasional news stories about how some of the drug laws enacted in the last 15 years may have gone too far. First-time offenders get locked up for decades. Judges, even Republican appointees, say that mandatory minimum sentences prevent them from making fair rulings. But have sentences really gone too far? This hour-long radio show examines the areas where a consensus is growing on the problems in federal drug laws, and it explains the areas where drug laws seem to be administered fairly. It includes the story of how a person could be sentenced to 19 years for drug possession, even if police found no drugs, drug money, residue, or paraphernalia, even if it's a first offense. Judges give their opinions of the drug sentencing laws. The show ends with a night in drug court.

Produced by American RadioWorks.
According to the 1880 United States Census, 99% of the nation's "insane persons" lived at home or in asylums. Only a few hundred were in jail. That was the practice in the U.S. for the next century: Mentally ill people who couldn't cope on their own were confined in institutions. Most never had the chance to live freely in society—or to get in trouble there.

That has changed. Last year the U.S. Justice Department said 280,000 people with serious mental illnesses were in jail or prison—more than four times the number in state mental hospitals. American RadioWorks explores why.

A project of the Quixote Center.
For over eight years, Prison Radio has aired the voices of men and women in prison. Their latest project is an audio collection of essays by Mumia Abu-Jamal, who writes from death row in Pennsylvania. Mumia talks about maintaining his connection to the living world around him and the ironies of the correctional system.

Live on Fridays at 9 p.m. (Central Time)
Over two decades ago, not long after he got out of Texas prison for robbery, Ray Hill got a job at his local public radio station, KPFT in Houston. He started a weekly program about Texas prisons during which, for most of an hour, he takes calls from people whose families are in prison. They talk to their loved ones behind bars, over the radio. You can listen live on the web.