Today, we finally met the experts—the DJs, activists, and community members who are studying the Appalachian prison system and playing an enormous role in determining how prisoners interact with families back home.
Amelia Kirby works at the Appalachia Citizens' Law Center, doing advocacy work around coal mining and workers’ rights. We met her at her office on Main Street, where signs deplore the death of mine workers by black lung. Some folks might know her better as DJ Amelia; she worked at WMMT, Appalshop’s community radio station, for many years and was a DJ for their hip-hop shows. As you might expect, it’s rare to find a hip-hop show in the mountains of Kentucky. But Hot 88.7: Hip-Hop from the Hilltop airs every Monday night now, and it’s clear what an important service it provides to inmates who so infrequently get to hear music. Prisoners write letters every week with song requests, poems, shout-out’s, and thanks to the WMMT staff.
Amelia told us that it was while DJing a hip-hop show that she got a call on the studio phone from a woman asking if she could leave a message for her son, who was incarcerated in one of the eight nearby prisons. Following that call, Amelia and her colleagues developed the idea for “Calls from Home”—a show that would allow family members to call in and leave messages for their loved ones in prison. Word quickly got out about the show thanks to the inmates themselves, who wrote to their families encouraging them to call the show’s toll-free number.
Since Amelia began Calls from Home ten years ago, it has gone through several iterations. But the show is more prolific now than ever, in part because of the three current DJs who we met at Appalshop.
It was surreal to finally walk into Appalshop after listening to Calls from Home in Harlem for months and only being able to imagine a DJ taking the calls in the studio. Once leaving Knoxville Airport, we had driven over 300 miles to finally reach this remarkably remote little town, and this weather-beaten wood-shingled arts building where a radio show reaches over the Appalachian mountains and beyond.
Sylvia, Elizabeth, and Ada are all 20-something DJs who work and volunteer at WMMT. Sylvia is from Massachusetts, Elizabeth is from nearby Wise, Virginia, and Ada grew up in Whitesburg and began DJing shows as a high schooler. They helped rejuvenate Calls from Home, and Sylvia and Elizabeth produced a multi-part radio series on mass incarceration. Whitesburg wouldn’t be a dream place for a lot of people in their 20s to live, but these three are dedicated to their work and seem unfazed about living in a small mountain town.
They gave us a tour of the studios – one is upstairs, used for recording calls, and the other is downstairs, where a DJ broadcasts Hip-Hop from the Hilltop. It was fascinating to finally learn and, later, to see how the show works.
By 7pm, Appalshop was empty save for Sylvia, Elizabeth, and Ada. Ada DJed Hip-Hop from the Hilltop downstairs while Sylvia took calls upstairs – they texted each other when they needed to. Shortly after 7pm, the red light that indicates an incoming call begins flashing. Lance and I witnessed all of the aspects of recording that don't make it in the show: the technical logistics and Sylvia’s graceful handling of all of the calls. Each time the red light blinked, she answered in a friendly but professional manner, “Hi, welcome to Calls from Home. This is Sylvia. Have you called here before?” Some of the calls were from regulars: wives, friends, aunts, cousins who call every week to share an update and provide encouragement to their loved ones in prison. Other callers were new to the show, in which case Sylvia patiently explained how the process worked and answered all of their questions. On the other end of the line, callers sounded comforted, though not always comfortable. Once Sylvia told them she was recording, the callers’ tones changed. They were no longer talking to a kind but unknown voice; they were leaving a message for their husband, their father, their best friend…
It was a busy night, and Sylvia made technical preparations for the show's imminent airtime at 9pm even as she took new calls. In addition to family members, political activists called as well. We learned that inmates in Red Onion State Prison – where numerous abuses and an excessive use of solitary confinement have been documented –are planning to initiate a hunger strike. One activist – a regular caller who himself was incarcerated at Red Onion– read aloud the demands of the inmates, who are protesting the harsh conditions they are subjected to inside.
We stayed at Appalshop until after 11pm, not wanting to miss one call or one pained expression on Sylvia’s face. In between calls, Sylvia explained some of the reasons the show is important. Not only are the incarcerated individuals in Appalachia in such a far and foreign place from their loved ones; they are further isolated by how expensive it is for their families to call them in prison. Calls cost easily five or ten times what they typically do, making it prohibitive for many families. With Sylvia at the end of a toll-free line, family members have another option for reaching their loved ones in prison.
We're grateful that we had the chance to document how the show works, and pleased that we’ll now be able to picture Ada, Elizabeth, and Sylvia in their studios on Monday nights. It is still up to our imaginations, though, to try to place the callers in their respective settings: what city they're calling from, what room, whether they’re with family or alone, what emotions and memories they’re grappling with. We're also left with gaping knowledge of what those in the prisons, tuning in to WMMT on their prison-issued radios, were feeling. With any luck, we’ll be able to hear and show some of their stories soon.
Update: Visit our Documentary page to watch the resulting short, "Calls from Home," an Official Selection of the 2014 PBS Online Film Festival.