Reporter’s Notebook: Unexpected insight inside the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility
Last Wednesday, Colorado Matters Senior Host Ryan Warner and I visited Denver Women’s Prison to interview Amber Pierce and Cynthia Gonzalez, producers of Inside Wire, a new online radio network that launched recently and is run by inmates.
Besides serving years behind bars, they also spend their time interviewing people, editing sound files, and broadcasting their packaged work. In many ways, that’s what Ryan and I do, too. I thought interviewing Gonzalez and Pierce, and letting them interview us, might reveal what we had in common.
It turns out to be a lot more than I thought.
Denver Women’s isn’t the only correctional facility that contributes to Inside Wire. Last month, I attended the launch of the radio operation in Limon, and met a half-dozen prisoner producers there. One, who used to run a print shop, had set a competing shop on fire, and a firefighter tasked with putting it out was killed, sending him to prison for life without the possibility of parole for felony murder.
During my visit, this inmate interviewed prison staff with such a mellifluous voice that it became hard to distinguish the inmate from the person holding him.
Inmates like him talked about the radio station contributing to their self-worth. Mainly, they chatted with members of the Colorado press who had been alerted to this unique opportunity — a radio station run by prisoners who interviewed, among others, the head of the state prison system, Dean Williams, in an “Ask-me-anything” style show.
There’s a difference between covering an event put together by media handlers, like the Limon event, and a sit-down interview that is more organic, with no specific objective, no potential winner. A few days after writing about the radio station at Limon, I had an idea to get below the surface and interact more authentically with prison residents, who like Ryan and me, are tasked with creating compelling content for listeners. What if we went to a prison that wasn’t teeming with reporters and did some deep interviews?
Ryan and the Colorado Matters crew needed little convincing. Also on board were my editor, prison leadership, and staffers from the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative, which creates programming for inmates — including the radio station, theater performances and online prison newspapers. Audio producer Peter Creamer and CPR photojournalist Hart Van Denburg were assigned to join us.
That morning, I dreaded that the prison would be like others I’d visited as a reporter in Maryland and New Mexico. The smell and sense of doom, the noise and the verbal abuse of guards and a diminishment of people’s humanity had all been so palpable that it squeezed me days after like an ill-fitting cloak.
It was different at Denver Women’s, which, if you ignored the razor wire and uniformed guards, looked something like a high school campus. We stored our phones in a locker, signed in, heard a few doors clink open and closed, waited for a few guards, and were soon inside. We walked up some stairs, down a long corridor and soon were in a tight room, the radio studio, which was once someone’s office.
Soon, I forgot I was in a prison. I was in my zone, where I have the right, and am actually paid and expected, to ask all sorts of questions of people I don’t know. After Peter set up the recording equipment, Ryan and I, Amber Pierce and Cynthia Gonzales, sat down at our respective mics.
Perhaps it was because the four of us were both the people being interviewed and the ones conducting the interviews at the same time, or because the situation was at once so surreal and yet so natural, I’m not sure … but within minutes, it became a space for us all to share some truths we hadn’t necessarily expected to.
Amber mentioned that in prison, she came to understand that she had body dysmorphia, which is where a person has a negatively skewed vision of how they look as compared to how other people see them. When Amber started talking about how this condition has played out for her in prison, I found myself chiming in with my own disclosures about the same issue. I have, for most of my life, felt that people saw me as too chubby, and therefore unworthy.
After I said that, to my surprise, Ryan said that he’d had a lifetime of self-consciousness about his own physique — exacerbated, he explained, by the physical expectations of gay men like himself. What are the chances I’d be sitting at a table talking body image with Ryan at any other moment, in any other environment?
This happened again when Amber mentioned that she was sensitive about people touching her around the head. This prompted me to share that I’d freaked out when a strange man buried his hand in my hair because he wanted to know what it felt like while I was on assignment for the Albuquerque Journal almost a decade ago. I was mid-sentence, saying, “I felt so …” and Amber burst in with, “Violated!” That was exactly what I was trying to say.
It was one of many moments during the interview that I felt like I was having a human experience with people who felt as I felt, who hurt as I hurt — and not merely with one woman who was serving life without the possibility of parole for felony murder, and another woman who was 12 years into an 18-year sentence for sexual exploitation of a child. I had not looked up the crimes of either producer-prisoner, because I might not have been so open if I had known why they were there.
Later in the interview, we were asked why we were radio journalists. I learned something about Ryan that might have not bubbled to the surface were it not for this once-in-a-career arrangement.
He answered with a funny story about his early journalism career — in TV news. He was reporting live from the field and — unbeknownst to him, a man was doing a suggestive dance in the background — one of many experiences that sent him racing to radio. It was a story, like others told that morning, that probably would not have come up otherwise.
One area I wanted to cover was whether they hoped people directly affected by their crimes would hear them on the radio. I had heard one of the prisoners I’d met at the Limon Correctional Facility express that hope on NPR’s “Weekend All Things Considered.” He wished to convey his remorse.
I was surprised to learn that 44-year-old Cynthia, who’d been inside for 25 years, still woke up each morning feeling guilt and shame. She mentioned she was convicted of felony murder and got a life sentence with no chance of parole. She didn’t elaborate on the crime, but a public records search later revealed some of the details: The Pueblo native had been with a guy who beat to death a 67-year old man. Whether Cynthia was part of the beating was unclear, but she pleaded guilty, possibly to avoid the death penalty, and now here she was, two and a half decades later, in a monogrammed prison sweatshirt and tan scrubs. She has nearly 1,000 signatures on a Change.org petition seeking clemency from Gov. Jared Polis.
It was a poignant moment that had her and Amber both tearing up. I, too, needed a tissue.
Amber, who had been sentenced to 18 years, felt equally contrite, and also cried during the interview about what she had done at a time when she was usually high on drugs.
Outside of the radio station, Cynthia and Amber have a mentor/mentee relationship they discussed during our interview. Cynthia, for instance, has counseled Amber on issues including her body image. Amber’s growth has given Cynthia something to feel good about, and the fact that they found each other in prison and could share how they had both helped each other was the most inspiring part of the interview for me.
Cynthia and Amber got me and Ryan to share a few moments of vulnerability with them. Perhaps that gave them a moment to feel the agency, connection, and distraction from my circumstances that I take for granted every time I conduct an interview.
When the guards released Ryan and me from the locked complex, it was a bright sunny spring day, and I walked across the parking lot to my car. Our photographer, Hart, was just a few feet away, looking as melancholy as I felt. He said something about people being more than the crimes they committed and shook his head.
Getting up from sitting with Amber and Cynthia, I realized this idea I’d had to interview them had exceeded my expectations. I thought we would talk about how they turn coffee grounds and Kool-Aid into make-up, something I’d heard prisoners elsewhere do. One inquiry I’d written down on my list of questions was whom they wrote, and who visited them.
I didn’t think I would have someone relate to me about my body image issues and my dislike of strangers touching my hair. Nor did I expect to be schooled by Cynthia on how to hope for a better day. She hasn’t tasted freedom in a quarter-century, yet looks forward to putting on her lavender eye shadow in the morning, before coming into the radio station. It was a demonstration that she, who lost her parents while serving her sentence, and now knows only a few people in the free world, still has a voice.
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