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Calls From Home Connects Family Members with Their Loved Ones in Maximum Security Prisons

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Courtesy Photo

For many families with loved ones who are overseas in the military or in the marines, the holiday season can be a very sad time, missing those who are far away. The holidays can also be hard on families with loved ones incarcerated. This is especially true for loved ones in maximum security prisons.

A radio program called Hip Hop from the Hilltop, Calls From Home, tries to help bridge people who are incarcerated with their loved ones. The show broadcasts messages from family members into prisons that are located in Eastern KY and Southwestern VA.

For people in high and maximum security facility prisons like Red Onion State Prison in Pound, VA, inmates can not receive any incoming calls. Inmates are also only allowed 20 minute conversations- which can cost anywhere from 14-25 cents per minute. Family members are often footing the bill to pay these account balances each month.

Sylvia Ryerson is part of a team of Djs that help air the show every Monday evening- to help keep the communication between families open. Sylvia says her friend Amelia Kirby first began broadcasting messages as part of the radio program back when the show started in 2000:

“My friend Amelia had just come home from college and started her own Hip Hop show. And just started getting dozens of letters every week from men were incarcerated that listened to her show. And one night she got a phone call from a woman inside the DC area who said 'my brother is incarcerated at red onion state prison, and I know he listens to your show every week. Would it be ok if I went on air and say hi to him with a shout out?;' And Amelia said 'sure, please do.' And so that night that woman gave the first shout out. She went on live and said hi to her brother and it just snowballed from there and grew really organically.”

Sylvia points out that the expensive phone rates are just part of the reason why communication is so difficult for low-income families.

"Just to hear somebody else calling in, it's encouraging to know there are people out there who are concerned about what we are going through, there are people out there that want to see us do better. That encouragement is what helps rehabilitate."

Travel costs to get here are really high. We're talking about a region here in Eastern KY and Southwestern VA that there's no public transportation, there's no train station, there's no bus station, there's virtually no way to get here unless you own a private vehicle or can afford to rent one. So for a lot of families, just the cost of getting here is virtually impossible. To actually visit.”

Syliva is often taping the messages that are broadcasted in Calls From Home, and so she's spent a lot of time listening to these calls.

I mean I think it's difficult, I often will answer the call and it will be a call from a kid calling for their parent, and sometimes the kid will say, 'hey dad, I did this thing today in school,' and there will be a pause, while they wait for their parent to respond, and then you'll hear the mom or the grandma in the background saying, 'oh they're not there, it's just a message.'”

And for spouses, the Calls from Home program has become a weekly ritual. This is true of Michelle, who leaves messages for her fiance just about every single week. Michelle, who wasn't comfortable sharing her last name, admits that while her fiance does have a record of violence, since the two of them reconnected a few years ago and have been communicating regularly while he's in prison, he has made enormous improvement in his behavior.

"Just to hear somebody else calling in, it's encouraging to know there are people out there who are concerned about what we are going through, there are people out there that want to see us do better. That encouragement is what helps rehabilitate."

Michelle adds that the costs for her fiance to call her can be exorbitant.

"Our phone calls on any given month run anywhere between $100-$300, it just depended on how often we were speaking. When they're in segregation, they're only allowed to make two phone calls per month."

"You're talking about a lot of these guys who have been transferred from urban cities, some of them have even been transferred from different states. And they're placed hours away, where it's difficult for family members to come visit them."

This Christmas Eve, Michelle did get the chance to travel down to Big Stone Gap to visit William. But not everyone has someone who can afford to make the journey.

Michelle makes a point of listening to the Calls From Home show each week, hearing messages from families from all over the country, sending words of encouragement inside the prisons.

"You're talking about a lot of these guys who have been transferred from urban cities, some of them have even been transferred from different states. And they're placed hours away, where it's difficult for family members to come visit them."

The Monday before Christmas, The Calls from Home DJs opened the phone lines for messages for an additional hour, so as many families as possible could get through.

As we head towards the New Year, we wanted to play a few of the calls from this week's program, including Michelle's, sharing prayers for improvement and better times ahead.

Special thanks to Sylvia Ryerson, aka Sly Rye, with WMMT for providing those great audio clips from the Calls From Home radio program. The show is broadcasted live from the Appalshop studio every Monday evening from 9:00-10:00 pm. Music in this story is by The Sweetback Sisters, Run DMC, and Sam Cooke.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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