KINGSTON — Every Wednesday at 7 p.m. for the last eight years, volunteer hosts at CFRC, Queen’s University’s campus radio station, have broadcast a show for an audience that’s niche, even by community-radio standards: prison inmates and their families.
Because it’s the last Wednesday of the month, the hosts of CFRC’s Prison Radio are about to do their long-running “Calls From Home” segment, during which they take song requests, share messages, and facilitate a dialogue between inmates and the outside world.
One of the hosts, Cee (who asked to be identified as such because he fears reprisal from his employer), adjusts the level on his microphone before greeting listeners and introducing the evening’s show: “If you want to get ahold of us — and that’s certainly what we want to hear from, is you, the listeners out there who have loved ones behind bars, who are behind bars, who are not in the free world — please give us a call.”
The first song request comes in via the program’s Facebook page.
“Wayne is sending this out to Johnny D. at Joyceville,” says Cee. “So, Johnny D., I hope you’re listening, and I’m assuming you know who you are. Wayne wants us to play Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Push It’ for you. Classic song.”
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The show began in 2009 when a group of volunteers at the radio station broadcast live on Prisoners’ Justice Day, August 10. That morphed into a regular weekly broadcast in 2011, though the cast of hosts and producers has evolved over the years. According to the Prison Radio website, the signal reaches eight institutions in the area, including the Cape Vincent Correctional Facility, in upstate New York.
Cee, who started volunteering at CFRC on music programs after moving to Kingston to pursue a master’s degree, has been a mainstay on Prison Radio since 2013.
“I didn’t even realize when I moved here that there were so many prisons in Kingston. I had basically not paid attention to it,” he says. “Once you start to learn a little bit or you meet people who deal with the system, you either get more involved or flee completely. Once you have a little bit of knowledge, it’s hard to step back.”
The broadcast serves as a space where hosts and listeners can share that knowledge: this Wednesday, for example, Cee’s co-host, Rachael Myers, brings up a recent announcement from the Correctional Service of Canada about video visitation. “They claim that they are now equipped for video visits in all federal institutions,” she says. “We haven't seen that implemented in the federal institutions in this area, yet — as far as we know — but in the provincial system, as well as in many American jurisdictions, that little piece of technology has certainly been used to claw back on in-person visits for lots of people.”
Myers says she considered herself a prison abolitionist — someone who advocates for the reduction or elimination of the traditional prison system — long before she got involved with the show six months ago. Like Cee, she notes that these institutions have a significant impact on the community.
“A lot of the town is deeply connected to the prison system,” she says. “Basically, anyone you talk to either knows someone who works there, or knows someone who's done time, or themselves have worked there or done time. It just felt like a really important piece of the fabric of the city.”
Back on the air, Myers does a call-out to any inmates at institutions where video visitation is being implemented, hoping to get feedback she can then discuss on a future show. The phone largely stays quiet — families of inmates are increasingly using social media to make their requests. Rising phone fees for inmates, Cee says, could also be a reason they’re getting fewer calls than in previous years. But Myers isn’t discouraged.
“Sometimes, the thing feels like we’re not getting that much engagement,” she says. But around Prisoner’s Justice Day and in December, she notes, there’s always a flurry of input.
“When people are calling in with all their kids on the line, leaving a message for Daddy, and you can hear all the kids in the background yelling at him with their cute Christmas song request or whatever, those are the things that make it worthwhile.”