The News Behind Bars
Calvert Porter sits down behind the anchor desk and straightens his collar. His co-anchor, Keith Williams, studies his script.
“Do you want a sound check?” Porter asks.
“No, you're all right,” the cameraman says.
“Do you want to start off with some light banter?” Porter asks.
The anchors chat about football for a few minutes, then tell the cameraman to roll. “Hello, everyone,” Williams says, “and thanks for tuning in.”
Porter is a convicted rapist. Williams is an armed robber. Their audience, not measured by Nielsen, is 2,000 or so murderers, rapists, robbers, forgers, car thieves and muggers at a Hagerstown prison. Their goals are not unlike Diane Sawyer's: Tell viewers things they don't know. Given the setting, most of their news is local.
“We have some very, very interesting facts coming up,” Williams says, his voice echoing off the cinderblock walls in a storage space doubling as a newsroom.
The newscast at the Maryland Correctional Training Center, or MCTC, is one of several such programs in the state's prisons, and experts say they know of few other efforts like it in the United States. The newscasts put a modern spin on a jailhouse journalism tradition that dates to the 19th century, when Jesse James's gang was known, among other things, as a group of influential and incarcerated newspapermen.
These days, prisoner newspapers are dwindling or gone, unable to survive as more violent inmates began entering the system in the 1980s, forcing more lockdowns and creating tougher environments. Costs skyrocketed, draining funding for inmate perks.
Experts say TV broadcasts could provide a cheap solution for cash-strapped states shouldering massive corrections budgets.
Having an outlet in which to record and share information is, even among wards of the state, a primal need, if not a basic right.
“You put a few thousand people together, and you have a community,” said historian James McGrath Morris, who has written a book on jailhouse journalism. “A community wants to record its actions. In the 21st century, now you're either going to start a blog or a TV station.”
Because the Internet is banned in Maryland prisons, inmates a few years ago went the route of Matt Lauer, Katie Couric and Bob Costas — all heroes to the anchors — and wardens encouraged the newscasts to save money on copying thousands of monthly newsletters. They are recorded with personal video cameras more often used by tourists on cruises.
There are segments on victims' rights, sports, prison rules, health, religion, phone calls, books, legal decisions, the chow hall and watercolor painting. Some shows are simulcast in Spanish. The emphasis is on providing an educational, positive vibe and, when possible, clearing up rumors that could cause tension with guards. One popular segment: “Life for Lifers.”
The newscasts, with approval by the warden, are beamed to cells, where inmates watch on TVs housed in clear casings to prevent the hiding of contraband. (TVs are allowed in most state prison cells, but not federal.) There is usually one newscast at the end of the week, although the anchors can break in midweek if news warrants. The ratings, though not measured scientifically, rival those for two prison favorites: sports programs and soap operas.
“We live in an information age, and not getting the proper information out can be frustrating,” Williams says. “Everybody has televisions, so this is a viable way of getting information out.”
Respect for truth
Porter and Williams, each serving 40-year sentences, are sitting on old, squeaky chairs atop worn but shiny linoleum floors. Sunlight seeps in from a small window through which inmates can be seen walking to class, or on their way to fix cars or to the library — somewhere other than the side of the fence Sawyer broadcasts from.
One of the lead items this day rivals an announcement on the outside about a new iPhone: the availability of digital conversion boxes for inmates' TVs, which prisoners can buy for about $45 to increase the number of available channels from a dozen to about 45. “It's finally on the scene,” Porter says. Williams replies, “Remote and everything.”
Before they get to more news about the converter boxes — they have learned the art of the tease — the anchors talk for several minutes about crime victims' awareness month, introducing b-roll footage that will be added later of a crime victim who had recently visited the prison.
“I thought it was very heartfelt,” Williams says.
“It gave us a brand-new appreciation for what victims go through,” Porter says.
“The word forgiveness kept coming up,” Williams says.
Prisoners, the anchors said, like to act tough and pretend they don't care about their actions, but interviews with victims often prompt inmates to tell the anchors things such as, “Oh, man, I saw that, and it just really changed my heart.”
Reporting the news has had a similar effect on the anchors — softening them, getting them interested in building a positive community, teaching them to respect truth.
Although no inmate is ever considered fully trustworthy by a warden, Porter and Williams are considered model prisoners, making them good candidates to deliver the news. Porter, 48, grew up in Baltimore and has earned several degrees behind bars, often raising money for victims and charities. Williams is from Southeast Washington and is active in prison churches. The anchors volunteer their time, making a few dollars a day with other prison jobs.
“This helps me be creative in a good way,” says Porter, whose day job is cleaning up blood that spatters during fights. “Before, I was creative in a bad way.”
Williams says: “How can I be a positive part of what's going on in my community? I committed a crime, obviously, to be here. I want to serve out my penance, and I want to go back to society, and I want to do something positive. That production starts right here, right now — this is the prime time to do it. ...I don't want to wait until I get to the door.”
Porter and Williams are treated with dignity and almost awe around the prison grounds — inmates sometimes chase after them with tips — and they are competitive with anchors at other prisons, even if they haven't seen each other's work. Anchors across the road at the Roxbury Correctional Institution, where a computer monitor doubles as a teleprompter, seemed happy to hear that MCTC anchors read from paper.
The clothing-order period is winding down. Porter reminds his viewers of the limits: two flat bedsheets, two pillow cases, one blanket, six boxers or briefs, six T-shirts, six pairs of socks, one light gray sweatshirt, two sets of longjohns (tan or off white), one pair of work boots, one pair of shorts (gray), one baseball or knit-style cap, and two pairs of denim jeans (no cargo).
“Make sure you have on your walking and your running shoes so you can walk for cancer,” Porter says, reminding inmates about an upcoming charity event. “And also so that you can work up an appetite for that lunch menu that's gonna be served. It's gonna consist of hamburgers, hot dogs, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, macaronis and cookies.”
The anchors are enjoying themselves, ad libbing and joshing with each other.
“I would do this for free,” Porter says after the broadcast.
“We do do it for free!” Williams says. They laugh.
They move on to a health segment, which focuses on the benefits of running, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing erectile dysfunction. But first, they need to clear up a “number of concerns about the pink coloration of the turkey meat” in the chow hall. Porter says, “It's a mystery.” But they intend to solve it. “We've got the answer for you,” he continues.
It turns out that harmless gases in the oven react with hemoglobin. “I don't know what that is,” Williams says. Anyway, it can give the turkey a pink tinge, but it is not harmful, the anchors say. Both look relieved. They move on: grievance procedure news, soccer and volleyball are starting soon, the upcoming NFL schedule, and so on.
They wrap up in solemn voices.
“Well, thanks for tuning in to this edition,” Williams says. “As always, stay positive and be an asset to your community. Do something positive for your community.”
“God bless,” Porter says.
And Williams says, “Good night.”