Warden Lewis E. Lawes on Radio in Sing Sing Prison

Illustration of Lewis Lawes, warden of Sing Sing Prison, on the Nov. 18, 1929, cover of Time Magazine
Sing Sing Prison Warden Lewis E. Lawes on Time Magazine (Nov. 18, 1929)

The other evening, I made one of my accustomed tours through the cell blocks. As I strolled along I could hear laughter issuing from practically every cell and could see, of course, that the radio was creating this atmosphere of joviality.

"Hello, Warden," the men greeted as I passed by. "They got a swell program on tonight."

I knew the program they were referring to. It was one of the prominent half-hour variety shows, and a favorite among the prisoners. But whether it was really as humorous as the mirth of the men seemed to indicate was a question; because prison, after a period of time, exerts an unfortunate, though to be expected, influence over the inmates incarcerated there.

Confined as they are, and with anything of tremendous importance rarely occurring to liven up their existence, they seize upon the slightest and most insignificant happening as material upon which to build something of moment to them. As a result, one can hear them laughing in the prison yard over the most trivial incident, or gravely arguing about the smallest matter imaginable.

Thus it is not difficult to understand why the remarks of a radio comedian, of a man who is expected to be comical, will move the men to hysterics, regardless of actual humorous quality.

As I continued my inspection, the hilarity gradually subsided and was replaced by an air of almost complete silence. I knew what was responsible for the change in attitude. The men were now listening to another type of program, a leading symphony orchestra; for it is our object, as far as possible, to provide a variety of entertainment for the confined men. And we do this for several reasons.

In the first place the types of inmates are as numerous as the types of programs, and therefore the tastes of all must be taken into consideration. There are many educated men to whom good music constitutes the essence of recreational enjoyment. Then there are prisoners for whom the drama holds the most desirable form of relaxation. But with practically few exceptions, every inmate eagerly listens to the news broadcasts so that he may participate as best he can in the constant movement that takes place in the world of which he was once a part.

The prisoners receive only broadcasts selected by our civilian program director, and these presentations are transmitted from our central receiving station to earphones in their cells. This means, of course, that the inmates do not have the privilege of choosing individual programs, but we so vary the types of shows that the desires of all are reasonably well satisfied.

Taking into account the practices of years ago, in which inmates, when not working, were confined completely to themselves, not even being allowed normal communication with one another, it is obvious to anyone what a tremendous blessing the radio is in the lives of men otherwise restrained from any direct contact with the world outside.

And in this connection, the radio medium contains features not possessed by the most complete library. It establishes a relationship with the living, vibrating human being other than with the cold, dead print of a book or of a publication.

But while a library can never be replaced even by the most advanced radio methods or technique, nonetheless what the men need most in prison is that which everyone on the outside appreciates, perhaps the least: contact with his fellow man. And radio provides this vital and valuable link for the man behind bars.

Lewis E. Lawes in Radio Guide, February 11, 1939