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Around the Dial

Capturing Unguarded Thoughts

NPR's 'Prison Diaries' series gains a unique inside perspective on the penal system by loaning tape recorders to inmates, corrections officers and judges.

January 12, 2001|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Judge Jeremiah Jeremiah Jr. sees too many kids like Matthew. Jeremiah is chief judge of the Rhode Island Family Court, and Matthew is a 16-year-old repeat offender, in and out of a juvenile facility for selling drugs. It was only two weeks ago that Jeremiah granted Matthew's release; now Matthew is back in his courtroom, arrested once again for selling drugs.

"In 10 or 15 minutes you're trying to change their whole life--and you can't do it," Jeremiah says in "Prison Diaries," a radio documentary series airing each Tuesday in January during National Public Radio's afternoon news program "All Things Considered," heard locally on KCRW-FM (89.9) and KPCC-FM (89.3) from 3 to 6 p.m. "The Prison Diaries" segments air in the 5 p.m. hour.

The twin narratives of Jeremiah and Matthew will air Tuesday. Like the other stories in "Prison Diaries," the subjects aren't interviewed; they were given tape recorders and told to keep a verbal diary.

"Prison Diaries" is the latest project from the "Radio Diaries" series, whose producer, Joe Richman, has similarly handed over tape recorders to teenagers to document their lives and to elderly people to capture life in a retirement home. In this way, Richman, a kind of Studs Terkel of the airwaves, has elicited intimate, disarming radio documentaries--this time on the world inside America's prisons.

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Richman sees his "Radio Diaries" series as a way to chronicle the lives of his subjects without the factors that often mitigate the truth--camera crews, reporters--factors that can lend more artifice than reality to a particular subject matter.

"There's certainly a kind of story you get this way that you can't get any other way," he says.

It took Richman, who is also a correspondent for American Radio Works, nearly two years to get "Prison Diaries" completed--time spent getting grant money, securing permission from prisons and then condensing 245 hours of tape-recorded material into five self-contained "diaries" of life behind bars. In the end, Richman gained entre into two facilities--the Rhode Island Training School, a juvenile facility in Cranston, and the Polk Youth Institution in Butner, N.C., which houses young adults. Subjects recorded their diaries for three months to a year.

"You go into these prisons, and it's kind of amazing how it is just like the cliche--the inmates and the officers playing their roles," says Richman, 35, a former producer for NPR programs including "All Things Considered," "Weekend Edition" and "Car Talk." "For that reason it's [harder] to break through to something that doesn't feel like the movies."

At Polk, Richman finds John Mills, a 21-year-old inmate with a history of armed robberies. Given a tape recorder and microphone and left to his own devices, Mills records the natural sounds of prison life and gives his own oral history: "Sometimes I can still remember the first night in prison. . . . I cried like a baby. That's all I did--walk around and cry in my room. I felt like I was in a cage, I couldn't get out. Once they turned out the lights, it was pitch black, and there was so much yelling going on, it made me feel like I was sick. I was real sick. . . . Now that I've gotten used to it, I love being in a cell by myself."

Subjects Open Up to Tape Recorders

"A lot of the stuff in the tape recorder he hadn't said before," Richman says of Mills. "There's no opportunity in prison to say or even think those vulnerable things because you always have to have your game face on. So he valued being able to go back into his cell and open up a little bit."

Still, for Richman, the challenge was to take an inmate's regimented life and give it a dramatic structure--to convey the at-times numbing sameness of prison life without numbing listeners in the process.

"In prison, once they did the first couple of weeks of recording, there was nothing new. It's so repetitious, their daily lives, that in a story like John Mills', there's no narrative arc to their lives."

The other radio diarists from Polk are corrections officers--including a 27-year veteran about to retire and an officer who complains that prison has become the equivalent of a Ramada Inn. Richman says prison officials did less vetting of what inmates said than what the officers would record into their diaries. One officer, he said, mentioned that inmates get 10 minutes to eat. The officer later changed that to 15 minutes.

The arc of rehabilitation is at the core of next week's "Prison Diaries," which features Cristel, a 15-year-old serving time at the Rhode Island Training School for assaulting a classmate with a razor (the victim required 300 stitches, and Cristel was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in jail). Locked up, Cristel eventually turned things around, getting her GED and taking college classes. Cristel's diary tracks her rehabilitation and early release. For Richman, she was a model diarist, someone who filled up tape after tape in a year and a half.

KCRW and KPCC will air "Prison Diaries" in its entirety Jan. 30--at 6:30 p.m. on KCRW, at 7 p.m. on KPCC.

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