Sony’s SRF-39FP Radio: The iPod of Prison
By: Joshua Hunt, The New Yorker, January 16, 2014
In early 2005, Josh Demmitt arrived at a federal prison camp, in Sheridan, Oregon, to serve a thirty-month sentence for starting a fire outside an animal-testing facility at Brigham Young University. The nineteen-year-old received a warm welcome from his fellow inmates, who greeted him with coffee and cigarettes, advice on procuring vegan meals, and a pocket AM/FM radio.
The radio provided hours of welcome distraction for Demmitt, who had come from Sheridan’s adjoining detention center, where, he says, he spent weeks without a radio while confined to a small cell for at least twenty-three hours a day. The radio was unlike any Demmitt had seen outside prison, with a transparent plastic body that revealed the landscape within: a single AA battery rested at the bottom of its circuit board, while its antenna—one and three quarter inches of copper wire coiled around a small ferrite bar—peeked through a white Sony logo, just above the AM/FM dial.
The pocket analog radio, known by the bland model number SRF-39FP, is a Sony “ultralight” model manufactured for prisons. Its clear housing is meant to prevent inmates from using it to smuggle contraband, and, at under thirty dollars, it is the most affordable Sony radio on the prison market.
That market consists of commissaries, which were established by the Department of Justice in 1930 to provide prisoners with items not supplied by their institutions; by offering a selection of shampoos and soaps, they shifted personal hygiene costs to inmates, while distractions like playing cards eased tensions among the nation’s growing prison population. More than half a million inmates each week shop at commissaries stocked by the Keefe Group, a privately held company that sells items to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and twelve out of fourteen privately managed state departments of corrections. A sample commissary order form lists items like an I.B.M. typewriter ribbon, hair dye, RC Cola, Sensodyne toothpaste, chili-garlic sauce, Koss CL-20 headphones, and a “Sony Radio.”
Commissaries often carry other, bargain-brand radios, but according to former inmates and employees of the Bureau of Prisons and the Keefe Group, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, America’s federal prisoners are most likely to own a Sony. Melissa Dolan, a Sony spokesperson, confirmed in an e-mail that selling portable radios in American prisons has long been a “stable business” that represents “sizable” sales for the company. Of the models available, the SRF-39FP remains an undisputed classic, still found on commissary lists an impressive fifteen years after its initial release, making it nearly as common behind prison walls as Apple’s iPod once was outside of them, despite competition from newer devices like digital radios and MP3 players.
But sheer availability doesn’t explain its ubiquity. The SRF-39FP is the gold standard among prison radios in part because it runs on a single AA battery, and offers forty hours of listening time—longer than an iPod Classic. Digital models can require twice as many batteries, like the Sony SRF-M35FP, which runs on two AAAs. Federal inmates are particularly attuned to battery life because they are allowed to spend just three hundred and twenty dollars each month on commissary goods; more cash spent on batteries means less for snacks, stationery, clothing, and toiletries.
Speaking of prison, this new film Starred Up looks awesome
Or just go for the prison film jugular