Radio reaches out to Kingston prisoners

CFRC broadcasts two special holiday programs connecting Canadians with their friends and family behind bars

CFRC received voice messages, letters and song requests from across the country dedicated to people incarcerated in Kingston’s prisons.
CFRC received voice messages, letters and song requests from across the country dedicated to people incarcerated in Kingston’s prisons.
Photo: 
Vlada Bilyak produces CFRC’s Calls From Home radio program.
Vlada Bilyak produces CFRC’s Calls From Home radio program.
Photo: 

“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” echoed in seven Kingston-area prisons over the holidays, after an anonymous caller dedicated the Eagles’ “Hotel California” to those spending time behind bars.

Song requests, voice messages and letters were broadcast on-request during CFRC’s holiday Calls From Home program — an hour-long broadcast aimed at connecting prisoners with friends and family on the outside.

Erin is waiting for her partner Pat to finish his sentence at Millhaven Institution. In the meantime, she uses Calls From Home to connect with him.

“You’re the most important person in my life and I would never have been able to get to where I am if it wasn’t for your love and support. Hang in there and always remember, after the rain,” she said in a message that aired on Dec. 21.

Pat responded to Erin in a letter, read a week later during the second Calls From Home’s holiday special.

“Merry Christmas, honey. Keep your chin up and we’ll get through these hard times together. You’re the best baby, I love you so much,” it read.

Other well-wishers requested fitting hits to air on the program; Johnny Cash’s song “Folsom Prison Blues” was followed by a Bob Marley classic, “Redemption Song,” on the show.

CFRC’s first prison-focused program aired on Aug. 10, 2009 in commemoration of Prisoners’ Justice Day. On that day in 1974, Eddie Nalon slit his wrists in solitary confinement at Millhaven Institution. He died of massive blood loss.

Volunteers at CFRC continued to air programs on prison-related issues inconsistently until August 2011, when a group pushed to form CFRC Prison Radio (CPR).

CPR has aired every Wednesday evening since.

“The Prison Farms struggle here and the announcement of proposed prison expansions in Kingston provided added impetus to begin focusing on prison issues more regularly,” Kristiana Clemens, operations officer at CFRC, told the Journal via email.

Hundreds of Kingston protesters attempted to block trucks from removing the Frontenac Prison Farm’s cattle herd in August 2010. The Frontenac farm closure was part of a federal government decision to axe Canada’s six prison farms.

On the last Wednesday of every month CPR devotes its hour to Calls From Home. Six shows have broadcast so far this school year and a seventh is slated for Jan. 27.

Clemens said CFRC’s prison-focused programming was born out of similar radio in other provinces.

Stark Raven radio, a broadcast out of Vancouver, airs a weekly prison-focused program. Their shows air regularly on CPR. On Thursdays, McGill’s campus-community radio station CKUT broadcasts prison programming as well.

Clemens said CPR helps the station to connect with Kingston’s greater community, and fulfill its mandate as media for students as well as Kingston locals.

“The political economy of prisons is deeply enmeshed in Kingston’s civic culture, yet rarely discussed openly,” she said.

Calls From Home was inspired by a similar program in Kentucky of the same name. The initiative rose from Thousand Kites, a broadcast out of the U.S. Appalachian region geared specifically toward the maximum security prisons there.

Vlada Bilyak, a volunteer at CFRC, heard about the program while attending the Allied Media Conference in Detroit this past summer. “We thought if there was a way we could use community radio to make that possible [in Kingston] it would be awesome,” said Bilyak, who produces CFRC’s Calls From Home.

“The way that prison issues and prisoners are represented in mainstream media is incredibly negative,” she said. “The CPR Collective is putting that on its head a little bit and providing an alternative to that kind of news and reporting on prison issues.”

Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) gave a grant of just over $100 to CFRC’s Calls From Home initiative. The grant funded the cost of their toll-free hotline.

CPR is in the process of becoming an OPIRG affiliate. The title would grant them year-round funding for their programing.

“We’ve been talking a lot about posters and flyers and mail outs,” Bilyak said. “All of that costs money, and it would be nice to have their support.”

CFRC doesn’t record listenership for most of its programming, Calls From Home included.

Though the station may never know who’s tuning in, Bilyak said the program will persist.

“Some of the conversations I’ve had with others about this show have been about how it involves people in prison and they assume the messages are about crimes people have committed,” she said. “If people were talking about that kind of information we wouldn’t want it to be on air.” Bilyak said she isn’t concerned about prisoners trying to communicate hidden messages to their listeners, and local prisons haven’t taken issue with the program either.

She added that CFRC sent posters advertising Calls From Home to Kingston Penitentiary a few months ago, hoping the prison would put them up and attract more listeners to the program.

Bilyak said the station didn’t hear back. Correctional Services Canada officials were not available for comment to the Journal.

“I don’t imagine a program like ours that’s devoted to those serving time and giving messages of support and encouragement and love is something they’d be very enthusiastic about,” she said.

One caller requested “Casey Anthony,” a song released in July by female hip-hop artist Lady. The title references a high-profile child murder case that wrapped up this summer.

A short voice message accompanied the song request.

“So from the sex working community on the outside to those of you on the inside, just want to say we’re thinking about you and we know that prisons aren’t the answer.”

Songs and sentiments on the show varied, but their message was consistent: hang in there.

To round out the last show, regular caller Carla requested “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts.

“Merry Christmas my darling David,” Carla said. “God merged our two broken roads.”

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