Transcript: Robert Lee – Prison Request Program
Transcript of Robert Lee (RG) talking to Chris Guster (CG) about the Prison Request Program he launched on Radio Goolarri in the late 1990s.
Oral history excerpt NFSA: 791941
Interview conducted in 2009
RL: … I used to do a great program called the Prison Request Program.
RL: … And that was mainly just so, instead of families travelling, as you realise, most of them didn’t have the money, so travelling thousands of kilometres, at best, to visit people that were incarcerated for sometimes petty fines – that you didn’t pay your speeding bills, so they’d lock you up, type of thing – some of them, of course, were what you’d call major criminal activities, but others were just drunk and disorderly type things. So that was how families actually kept in touch. So I thought, ‘That’s a great idea,’ and I brought it back here and we started the Prison Request Program.
CG: So can I just clarify it. This is a radio program?
RL: Yeah, I’m talking radio here.
CG: You set up a thing for the families to come to communicate with people in the prison here, and then you recorded a radio program around that? How did it work?
RL: No, well, what happened was, the prisons in Northern Territory and the Batchelor College and other places, had video conferencing units. So what that did is, that was a visual medium, so that you could see as well as speak to people. So I thought that would work well with radio, where I came from, see. So I was still doing radio at the time.
CG: I see, so you just picked up on the idea of the communication? Okay.
RL: So what I did instead of – well, you know how a lot of people – you do request programs and a lot of people request a song for an inmate. So this was a way of getting the inmates to actually request and give messages to family members out in the community. So, I first started off where they’d write down what they wanted to say, and a song. So it’d be like, you know, ‘This is Jimmy from Fitzroy Crossing, I’d like to say I miss the family and I’ll be out in August, and here’s a song’. But the announcer would actually read it. So what I did then, or I would read it. So that was the beginning of the thing. but then I got to the stage where I’d ask the warden at the time, and said, ‘Can I actually bring a recording device in’, which apparently it’s not supposed to happen, but lenience as is, and realising how important it was, so I said, ‘It’ll sound better if they actually say the message, rather than me read it out’. And it’d give it more, you know, oomph, I suppose.
CG: So you’d pre-record these messages, would you?
RL: Yeah. So what I used to do is, I’d go into the prison in Broome here, and I’d sit there for about an hour, between 3.00 and 4.00, when they had their breaks. I’d bring in a list of music that we actually had, and then I’d say, ‘Go away, think about what you want to say, and then pick a song, and then come back, and I’ll record it.’ So they’d go off, they’d look at the music, then they’d sit down in a corner and then they’d actually put a message out and tell their families how much they missed them, and all this, and when they’re coming out, and anything else, and then request the song. So that went off quite well. So it sort of built up. And the only reason, then, as time went on, I then became the radio manager, so they took me off. I had more things to do than to be able to spend that time in the prison.
But I did enjoy it, ‘cos it was funny, ‘cos I was sitting in there taking requests, and you’d see people that you used to see out on the streets, and wonder where they – ‘Oh, so this is what happened to you’. And, you know, the same thing, you’d find it’s sad, but you’ll find that most people that are inside, specially Indigenous people, they’re in there for drunk and disorderly, where you’d get drunk and/or just not paying their fines, or just silly, petty things that you wouldn’t think would ever happen. I mean, why would you lock someone up just because they didn’t happen to pay their fine, and you know they’re unemployed and there’s no way they can actually do it. So why would you lock them up? So stuff like that.
CG: So how did you cope with all that? Did you find it quite depressing, or was it quite a rewarding experience to coordinate that?
RL: I found it very interesting and, oh well,. it was a case of having a good laugh at each other for what we were doing, and what they were doing. But it was frustrating. I could feel their frustration, you know, that you’d be locked up for three or four months, or sometimes longer, just for something trivial in regards to that. And you can’t blame the justice system or the legal system, it’s just the way the law is. I suppose the judges, well, I’ve seen – some of the inmates have been in and out there like pogo sticks. They’ve been in and out so many times. A good friend of mine was the same case. He just didn’t know how many bench warrants were out for him because you miss a court case and they put a bench warrant out, and before he knows it, he’s locked up again.