Incarcerated Man Explains How Prison Broadcast TV Made Him a Taylor Swift Fan

Unless we know and love someone in prison or work at one, it’s likely that most of us aren’t thinking about the day-to-day lives of the incarcerated — much less how they find entertainment and keep up to date with media, performers and pop culture. Joe Garcia, an incarcerated man in California who participates in the Prison Journalism Project, penned a compelling essay for The New Yorker detailing his journey as Swiftie, which began after he was sentenced to life behind bars.

Garcia was waiting to be transported to his first prison after receiving a life sentence for murder when he heard about Taylor Swift for the first time. It’s a moment that a lot of Swift fans probably look back on fondly, but for Garcia, the moment was filled with resentment.

As he writes, “The jail was full of young men of color who wrote and performed their own raps, often about chasing money and fame, while Swift was out there, actually getting rich and famous. How fearless could any little blond fluff like that really be?”

Six years later, Garcia had earned television privileges. The system by which an incarcerated person is allowed to watch or have a TV can vary state by state, even prison by prison, and can be dependent on the security status of the prison itself. TV is an important component of life in prison, and broadcast television has even been described as “one of the most important peacekeeping tools in prisons across the nation.”

While wading through a sea of broadcast entertainment news, Garcia occasionally caught clips of Swift performing on daytime and late-night talk shows. Her interviews impressed him, but he didn’t let anyone know about it. Over time, he would hear a Swift song on the radio and discover that he didn’t hate it; like a lot of people, her songs reminded him of someone he had loved and hoped that he hadn’t lost for good.

By the time Garcia was transferred to the California Men’s Colony, he had found a number of ways to continue to listen to Swift. First by way of a neighbor’s pocket radio, then he was able to buy “Red” from a list of prison-approved records. At the CMC he connected with two fellow Swifties, one of whom shared his extensive CD collection with the group until he was transferred away six months later.

Garcia writes that when Swift released “1989,” he temporarily had access to a boom box, despite the fact that “exchanging property and altering devices” flew in the face of prison rules. Garcia explains that “every prison has guys who fill their cells with radios, TVs, and speakers to repair and resell” and that he played Swift on his stereo until his next transfer, when he wasn’t allowed to take the portable sound system with him.

A transfer to San Quentin gave him the opportunity to work for the prison’s newspaper for a quarter an hour. Eventually, he asked his family to help him buy a prison-sanctioned MP3 player so he could continue to listen to Swift. A friend who was being transferred out gifted him his own radio, which could play CDs and tapes.

(The Zoukis Consulting Group notes that many federal prisons now sell 8 gigabyte SanDisk MP3 players for $69. The players hold approximately 2,100 songs, which can be purchased for between $0.85 and $1.55 per song.)

The COVID-19 pandemic hit San Quentin hard, and a judge in Marin County found prison officials guilty of inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on prisoners, 75% of whom contracted the virus.

Garcia credits Swift’s songs with helping get him through the darkest times, of which there were many. He writes, “Alone in a prison cell, it’s virtually impossible to avoid oneself. As my body and mind began to recover, I started to question everything. What really matters? Who am I? What if I die tomorrow?”

His Swift fandom continued, and Garcia kept finding new ways to listen to and watch the star — even when he didn’t plan it. One morning in October 2022, he rigged up his TV to his boom box so he could see and hear “Good Morning America” (the speakers on the TV didn’t work), just in time to find out Swift had released her album “Midnights.” Weeks later, a volunteer snuck him a copy of the record for his birthday.

Garcia is up for parole in a few months and could be released in 2024 after serving 20 continuous years. He readily admits guilt, writing that he is “guilty of more than murder. I abandoned my parents and my sweetheart, too. There’s no way to fix this stuff.” As he prepares for his parole hearing, he plans to listen to “Midnights” — a feat made possible by the myriad of ways incarcerated people have found to get the entertainment so many of us take for granted in the first place. And he may have someone to listen with, as he writes, “The woman I love says she’s ready to meet me on the other side of the prison wall, on the day that I walk into the daylight.”

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