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Life Inside

Penitentiary Rock: The Radio Show With a Captive Audience

“Only this music captures my bitter, visceral pain.”

In prison, and on death row especially, there is often very little to do. One of the chief ways I pass time is by listening to the radio. A simple AM/FM device, just a bit smaller than a cellphone, a worn set of earbuds and a single AA battery is all I need.

Unfortunately, the musical selection on the 15 or so North Carolina stations I can pick up leaves quite a bit to be desired.

And this is why I look forward to Friday night.

The weekly radio show known as “Penitentiary Rock”—or “Pen Rock” for short—first aired on WKNC 88.1, the N.C. State University station, during the 1990s. This was before my arrival on death row.

According to some of the guys who were here back then, the “Rock” developed after a small group of prisoners, often fans of hard rock and heavy-metal, decided to write letters to the student deejays at WKNC, requesting songs. (Some of them made requests by placing collect calls without connecting, naming the song they wanted instead of giving their own names.)

The DJs responded by not only playing inmate requests for bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Motörhead, but also encouraging their captive audience to let the DJs actually read their letters on air. At some point, there was a contest for listeners to come up with a name for the show, which generated “Penitentiary Rock.”

After a few years, the DJs either graduated from college or simply moved away, and by the time I came to death row in 2000 the show no longer existed in its original form. WKNC still played heavy-metal on Friday nights, but requests weren’t always played and letters were rarely acknowledged.

It wasn’t until 2006 when one of the original “Pen Rock” DJs, “Uncle Paul” Williams, re-enrolled at N.C. State, that our show was revived. In the years since, it has grown in popularity and become a mainstay for men and women in penal institutions throughout the station’s listening area.

Every Friday night, at 9 p.m. sharp, Uncle Paul leads in: “WKNC 88.1, I am Uncle Paul, and this is Penitentiary Rock, the show for those of you who can’t always get to a phone to call in. We’ve got a bunch of letters tonight, so I’m going to get to as many as I can.”

From this point, there’s no telling where it might go. Every Friday night is different, based on the content of the letters. Some are short and to the point, while others are rambling, semi-coherent and hilariously absurd—but Paul reads them all. Many writers use the forum to stay in contact with other prisoners around the state, as well as to air gripes and grievances of every variety. Most importantly, though, we all write to feel we are a part of something bigger than ourselves and the walls that contain us.

Hey Uncle Paul,
Excellent show last Friday night, Maestro. I was really digging the new track from Warbringer. This week I’d like to request the live version of Slayer’s “The Antichrist.”
Let me also give a shout-out to all the listeners here on the row and to the entire Pen Rock family. And many thanks to you, Uncle Paul.
Fight til death,

Having been a heavy-metal fanatic since the age of 12, the music resonates with me even apart from the experience of prison. I have always been able to relate to feelings of anger, alienation from society and the questioning of government and organized religion.

But never has that been more true than during the past 18 years. Only this music captures my bitter, visceral pain.

Dearest Uncle,
I’m writing to you once again from single cell A, solitary confinement, where I am doing 45 days for assault on staff. If they don’t give me long-term, I’ll only have 15 days left by the time you get this letter. I’m hoping you can play “Wait and Bleed” by Slipknot, or anything by Five Finger Death Punch, to get me through these last couple of weeks.
I want to give a shout-out to my sexy wife Rachel—Daddy will be home soon. Also to Andrea, Crystal, Gina, Bar Code, and all the men at Central Prison. Middle fingers in the air to all my haters.
And of course to you, Uncle Paul. Keep us rockin’ in here.
Killer Katrina

Unfortunately, though, there are some weeks when there is no “Pen Rock” to get us through the heartbreak and agony all of us have shared in our lives, down to a man, both before and during our incarceration.

Due to its association with N.C. State, WKNC often broadcasts Wolfpack sports events. Whenever baseball, basketball and even ice hockey are in season, I and my fellow prisoners closely monitor the upcoming schedule in the newspaper with our fingers crossed for no Friday night games.

The weeks with no Uncle Paul can be difficult. Friday becomes just another day among all the many, many days. Without our brief reprieve, the monotony of this place weighs all the more on our already burdened minds.

It is during these times, as I am tuned into another radio station suffering through “Stairway to Heaven” or “Free Bird” for the millionth time, that I truly appreciate Pen Rock and the kids who made it happen for us, and look forward even more to the next time it is on.

Timothy White, 41, is on death row at Central Prison in Raleigh, N.C., where he is awaiting execution for first-degree murder; he pleaded guilty in 2000.

Penitentiary Rock airs from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern every Friday on WKNC in Raleigh. See artwork from incarcerated Pen Rock listeners here.