On a Sunday night on KPFZ in Lakeport, California, a mother is calling in.
“I want to talk to my son,” she says. “I love you, I miss you, sorry I couldn’t talk to you this morning my phone is tweaked.” She cries: “I love you and I want to know where you are.”
A girlfriend is on the air: “Josh, we have had our ups and down, I drift off into a sleep slumber, the warmth of your body and arms around me. My love for you hasn’t died.”
Then there are the kids:
“This is for my dad. He made mistakes, but we all make mistakes and I love him. Sure he did bad stuff, but don’t we all?”
These are the sounds of an unusual Sunday night radio show on KPFZ: “Radio Jail,” a program that gives families and friends of inmates at Lake County Jail the opportunity to take to the airwaves to talk to their incarcerated loved ones.
Thanks to the local sheriff, the inmates are allowed to listen in.
The homespun show, which airs from 6 to 7 p.m. at 88.1 FM and via a live webstream, opens with The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” — “Come on people now, smile on your brother, everybody get together, try to love one another right now” — and host Eugenie Steinman’s warm “Welcome, welcome, welcome to ‘Radio Jail.’ It’s time to pour your sentiments and love into the jail.”
Modeled on a program on Texas public radio, “Radio Jail” was started four years ago by Steinman, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native who says her show is helping curb recidivism in the local jail. This is community radio, run by local volunteers; the conversations are honest, heartfelt and mostly unedited, with inappropriate comments nipped in the bud to avoid running afoul of FCC rules. (“Too much potty mouth,” Steinman admonishes a caller as she cuts off his rap-like shoutouts peppered with profanities.)
“When I heard about this idea for a program, I went crazy,” says Steinman, a decade-long voice at the public radio station who also hosts other programs there.
Some of the callers’ messages are heartbreaking — especially those from young children who want to speak to or even sing songs to their parents. Other callers’ messages range from inspirational to mundane. (“Sorry I didn’t get your call, my phone was out of order”).
“Hi caller, you’re on the air!” Eugenie cheerleads. “We really appreciate these messages to keep the spirits of the prisoners up.”
Some calls come from former inmates, now on the outside, who want to keep in touch with, and mentor, friends still doing time.
“I want to give a shoutout to F-Pod and all my homeboys,” one caller says. “I’m out here doing my thing — being a family man, living up to my word. I finally got a new car. I send my love to all you guys — Angel, Postal, Dog Boy … to let you know I’m thinking of you all the time … Love all you guys — keep your head up!”
Another male caller, who said he had listened to the radio program on prison loudspeakers through the thick doors of maximum security, echoed that sentiment:
“I just got released less than a month ago, and I have some giving back to my people in there. I want them to know I didn’t forget about them. I got a job already, and I’ll be ready for when you guys come home.”
Messages like these send a ray of hope to those listening to the show behind bars. Knowing that someone on the outside cares can make a huge difference in an inmate’s mental and emotional well-being, Steinman says.
“Many studies have proven that keeping inmates and families together and not forgotten reduces recidivism,” she says. She supplied proof of that research to the sheriff’s office to gain permission to continue airing her program in the facility.
“It has made such a difference in their lives every Sunday,” Steinman says. “Of course, the inmates feel good when their names are mentioned on the air — it puts a smile on their face.”
A letter Steinman read on a Father’s Day broadcast from an inmate who’d moved on to San Quentin sums it up:
“Thank you Radio Jail — I think what you do is awesome.”