30 January 2018

Hey Lenny, Pass Me My Shiv

What does one do for entertainment while in prison? (Please, no jokes about dropping the soap.) Well apparently, if you are a good little felon, you get to listen to the radio. Not just any radio, but a radio that can't also be used to hide contraband. That's why radios with clear cases are all that the well behaved prisoner is allowed to have. There was (and may still be) a small but thriving market for clear cased radios (and TV's DVD players, clock radios, etc...).

Perhaps the most famous of the prison radio series is the Sony SRF-39FP. The 'FP' in the name stands for Federal Prison - one heck of a marketing gimmick, and it worked! These little radios were hard to find 'on the outside' when they were being manufactured. Sony didn't sell the clear version to the law abiding - you had to be behind bars to be able to buy one (through a prison commissary system). The radio also had a reputation as a great little receiver that sipped battery power. The fact that they only used one AA cell was a big plus too; batteries tend to be expensive when your pay is just a few cents a day. The little Sony quickly gained minor cult status among radio collectors. One wants what one can't have, at least not without breaking the law. Occasionally small lots of these radios would make their way to eBay or other auction sites. Some were new, but others were in used condition, often with prisoner numbers etched on them and a patina that could only come from constant use. Collectors and enthusiasts who got a hold of these little radios reported they were excellent performers, particularly on FM.

You can still find these radios new in the box, but at an astounding 300% over the original price

One bored collector actually tested the run time of his SRF-39FP and found out it would operate for over 163 hours straight - on a single battery!

Last week a small lot of these radios came up for sale on eBay at a very reasonable Buy It Now price. They were used, but working. They came out of the Tennessee prison system and I'm not sure if they were personal property left behind or the prison issued them to the prisoners. Regardless, these were the first reasonably priced SRF-39FP radios I'd seen on eBay in a quite a while.

So of course I jumped. When it arrived it was clear this radio had been 'well loved'; in fact, it looks like part of the front face of the radio was sand papered to remove some sort of marking. Perhaps a secret prison code carved into the plastic by a desperate inmate using his home made shiv. OK, too many James Cagney movies. But the seller said it worked. And work it does! I popped in a fresh AA battery and plugged in some ear buds and was very pleasantly surprised. Sensitivity is excellent - this little radio is a hot performer on FM, and stereo FM stations sound great. Selectivity is good, but the small tuning dial means you'll be doing a bit of tweaking to lock on to the station you want to hear. AM performance is not as good, but it still pulls in local stations with authority. All-in-all a remarkably good little performer, and I can see why they were popular with prisoners.

Everything the successful prisoner needs in life - his Sony SRF-39 radio and a couple of files

Sony took the SRF-39 series radios out of production several years ago. I'm not sure why. It could have been declining sales, rising production costs, parts shortages or any number of factors. What is clear (pun intended) is that Sony decided to leave the niche prison market all together - as far as I can tell Sony no longer makes any clear-cased radios or other electronic devices. That market seems to have been taken over by Taiwan-based Sangean, which now offers a wide array of 'prison ready' electronics.

So next time you are banging your tin cup on the table in the prison dining hall, demanding better food, make sure you have your SRF-39FP along so you can keep up with world events while the bulls are giving you a beat-down. OK, OK, I promise to stop watching Jimmy Cagney movies.

W8BYH out


  1. Once again a voluminous amount of information on a subject of which not many people are aware. This leads me to wonder how the author got to know so much about prison radios (and shivs). Personal experience? Someone on the inside? A curious audience wants to know!

  2. If you don't ask, I won't tell :-)