Katherine Griffin, host of The Prison Show on Houston’s KPFT, opened the first show of 2014 with typical positivity. “As long as you’re breathing you have a shot at this thing,” she declared to the many inmates and their families who tune in each Friday night, her natural optimism discernable over the airwaves. “It don’t stop ’til the casket drop.”
It was the kind of encouraging sentiment you often hear on The Prison Show, started in 1980 and hosted, until his retirement last year, by local prisoners-rights activist Ray Hill. Hill said he hand-picked Griffin to succeed him because of her charisma and natural flair as a singer and entertainer. Griffin’s father, Ed Townsend, was a music producer who co-wrote songs with Marvin Gaye. Perhaps more important, Griffin, like Hill, is an ex-con.
Griffin, 53, was born in Inglewood, California, and grew up in Heidelberg, Mississippi. She received a scholarship to Texas Southern University when she was just 16 and relocated to Houston. But as a teen on her own in a major city, she began living a fast lifestyle. She went on dates with wealthy, older men who introduced her to exchanging sex for money. She soon descended into a life of prostitution and drug addiction.
“I was a juvenile living in an adult world,” Griffin said. “My childhood and innocence was stolen, and it made me want to rush and grow up real fast.”
Griffin began cycling through the criminal justice system but found little help from a monolithic Texas penal system that seemed uninterested in treating her addictions or the traumas she experienced. “Nobody was allowing me to address … the rapes, it was all about drugs, drugs, drugs,” Griffin said of her $30,000-a-month cocaine addiction. “I couldn’t get sober.”
She found the way out through a then-experimental Harris County drug court program, and has now, for over a decade, helped rehabilitate other women through her own nonprofit, We’ve Been There, Done That. Griffin is also the lead recovery coach at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. Her nonprofit operates on a $40,000 annual budget, but Griffin said she often pays for clients’ temporary lodging, clothing and food out of her own pocket.
Through her efforts with various programs like Volunteers of America, Griffin said she’s overseen the rehabilitation of 400 former prostitutes. Offenders sentenced to prostitution recovery programs often work with Griffin for years past their release.
“It can take up to four years to get retrained to live a productive, tax-paying, American life,” Griffin said.
The work Griffin does on The Prison Show provides a more ephemeral kind of catharsis for inmates who tune in, but it’s no less important.
“Little babies sing songs to their fathers,” Griffin said. “It’s just an awesome, beautiful experience.”
Though Texas devotes hundreds of millions to imprisoning its citizens, the state has often been reluctant to improve conditions within the penal system. A series of federal court rulings in the infamous Ruiz v. Estelle lawsuit improved conditions in Texas prisons starting in 1980, though until 2006 Texas prisons weren’t compelled to provide inmates access to pay phones. Excerpts from The Prison Show were used as testimony during public hearings on the legislation that required the phones.
The program, now in its 34th year on the air, is poignant not because calls from families reveal a secret dialogue between the free world and inmates, Griffin pointed out, but because the messages sent to the men and women in lockup are often stories of everyday life.
Loved ones don’t just phone in to relay brief salutations or fraught declarations of love. Rather, callers easily slip into meandering accounts of the mundane. The one-sided conversations feel as though they’re taking place in living rooms or on front porches.
“The family members that call in, a lot of them are elders … a lot of them aren’t able to afford to go travel because they’re so far from where loved ones are housed,” Griffin said.
One woman from North Carolina called in during the Jan. 4 broadcast to relay news to a Polunsky Unit inmate in Livingston of a pet’s visit to the vet. “[The dog’s] surgery went well,” the caller named Bella said to inmate Jedediah. “I wish you could have seen her when I first got to the vet and they let her out… she was crying and crying like she hadn’t seen me in 100 years.”
For Griffin, it was just another night of bringing prisoners a slice of the free world.