May 19, 2012
Goodbye, NYC. Hello, Coal Country!
We're jumping into filming a short related to mass incarceration, so we're here to learn about prisons. We're in the right place: Eastern Kentucky is home to more than a dozen prisons, regional jails, and detention centers, including two supermax facilities. The region is in the midst of a prison boom, the latest scheme intended to offset rising unemployment due to dwindling work in the coal mines. The result seems to be a volatile mix of rural poverty, environmental ills, profound public health challenges, incarcerated men from urban centers, and distrust all around.
After flying from New York to Knoxville, driving north through Tennessee into Kentucky today felt familiar in some ways. Our families have roots in these hills, and others nearby, where we’ve spent Christmases and summer vacations. But we’ve never been this deep in coal country—so deep that the red-white-and-blue bumper stickers in Harlan (of the famous documentary Harlan County, USA) reminded us at every turn, “If you don’t like coal, don’t use electricity.”
Before we saw all of this, we heard about it, though a radio show broadcast by WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Every Monday night, the DJs hosting Calls from Home record calls from inmates’ loved ones, most of whom live thousands of miles away, and broadcast them over the concrete walls and into cells where cheap radios purchased at the prison commissary connect mothers and sons, best friends, husbands and wives. The show also streams online to any corner of the world that cares to hear—including our studio apartment in Harlem, where we first heard the show in January. Listening to the calls—some sweet, some funny, most heartbreaking—inspired us to make our way to Whitesburg, explore the proliferation of prisons in southeastern Kentucky and southwestern Virginia, and understand more about how this show serves the burgeoning prison population.
The bumper stickers we found while driving through Harlan were but one indication we saw today of southeastern Kentucky’s pride in their coal history. We passed billboards insisting that the coal industry is alive, well, and environmentally sound. As we entered Benham, where we’re spending the night, a sign designated the city as “the little town that International Harvester, coal miners and their families built.” Main Street consists of exactly four things: the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum, a second-hand thrift store called The Coal Bin, the fire department, and City Hall. Behind the museum was a memorial to the hundreds of coal miners—just from the surrounding area—who died while working in the mines or from health consequences later on.
After dropping off our bags at the Benham School House Inn, we made the 30-minute drive over a mountain to Whitesburg, home to the non-profit arts and media organization Appalshop and the radio station where Calls from Home is broadcast. We quickly found the most happening place in town and capped off the day with beer, sandwiches, and a seriously rocked out performance by guitar-shredding Kelly Richey at Summit City Lounge. Our ears are still ringing.
Up next: Prisons on the Mines: Day 2 of Scouting in Appalachia