Kentucky Radio Links Prisoners To Loved Ones

Jan 8, 2014
Originally published on January 14, 2014 3:14 pm

The community radio station WMMT 88.7 in Whitesburg, Kentucky, takes pride in airing the only hip hop show in central Appalachia — but many listeners tune in for much more than the music.

On Monday nights, the phones at WMMT ring off the hook, as families and friends call to leave messages for inmates at nearby high-security prisons.

Each week, the station dedicates an hour to airing those messages for prisoners the family and friends otherwise can’t reach — either due to the expense of the calls or because the inmate’s calls are limited. Prisoners buy and share radios to hear the program.

Calls from Home“ has been a weekly installment at WMMT for more than 10 years. Sylvia Ryerson answers and archives messages for the program and joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the program and share some messages.



  • Sylvia Ryerson, answers and archives messages from the “Calls from Home” program at WMMT, where she’s known on-air as DJ “Sly Rye.”
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YOUNG: Whitesburg, Kentucky community radio takes pride in airing the only hip hop show in Central Appalachia. But many listeners tune in for much more than the music.


DJ JULES: This is DJ Jules(ph). And upstairs we have DJ Sly Rye taking calls from 7 to 9 p.m.

YOUNG: Every Monday night, well, DJs play hip hop favorites. The phones at WMMT ring off the hook and callers aren't just making song requests. Lines are open so that they can send messages to inmates at nearby high-security prisons.


BRENAN: Hey, Uncle Elliot(ph). It's Brenan(ph). I hope you're doing good. I would like to spend some time with you. I'm 12 years old now. My mom is doing good. I love you.

YOUNG: Every week, the station dedicates an hour to airing the messages that families, friends and allies leave for prisoners they otherwise can't reach.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: To my son, Mr. Devon Hall(ph), dad loves you, man. Always and forever, my brother. Love you, man. Wish you were here. But you're always here with us in spirit so keep your mind in focus, all right? Coming soon. Coming soon. And we're going to claim it, and I could say we're never going to give up.

YOUNG: "Calls from Home" has been a weekly installment at WMMT for more than 10 years. Sylvia Ryerson answers and archives messages for the program and joins us now in the studio because we should say you're originally from here in the Massachusetts area. Hi there, Sylvia.

SYLVIA RYERSON, BYLINE: Hi. Thank you for having me.

YOUNG: This is for people who can't reach prisoners. Why can't they reach them?

RYERSON: Most of the people that are incarcerated in these prisons are from very far away from Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia where the prisons are, and so this show sort of serves as this outlet to make it possible for them to stay in touch. We reach both state and federal prisons. Many of the people are from all across the country, and so it's extremely expensive to actually make the trip to visit.

YOUNG: Or make the phone call. Talk about that.

RYERSON: That's right. Many of the people in these prisons have extremely limited access to even being able to make phone calls out. And then also the rates of making the phone call is extremely high.

YOUNG: It's unbelievable, like $17 for 15 minutes in some cases. In fact, in August, the FCC voted to reduce prison telephone rates because they were so much more artificially high than outside rates. But still, they are expensive.

RYERSON: Now there is a cap on interstate phone calls, but instate phone calls are still very high and are still higher than a regular call outside.

YOUNG: Yeah. So there's that. And then not every prisoner can just sashay over to a payphone when they want. There's limited time.

RYERSON: That's right. If you're in segregation at Red Onion State Prison, for example, which is a super maximum prison about 45 minutes from the radio station, you are allowed two 20-minute phone calls a month. And this is for men that - in that prison, in segregation means you're in your cell for 23 hours a day with one hour of rec.

YOUNG: And by the way, we should say this petition before the FCC was brought by a grandmother who had a grandson in prison and wanted relief from some of these high rates. So that's been adjusted. But still, your show hopes to make up for this lack of communication. Address the people who I can hear saying why do we care about whether prisoners are - get to hear from their families?

RYERSON: You know, studies across the board show that to be able to maintain contact with your family and your community is one of the most significant things in reducing recidivism for people once they get out so they have some community to come back to.

But to be cut off from that support system is devastating and makes it that much harder to re-enter society once you're out. And these are for people that are already sent so far away from home they are really culturally isolated in the coal fields. It's not their home community.

YOUNG: It's hard to have the phone connection and it's really hard for many of these families to travel. We have the sound of two women who make the trip to see their son at Red Onion State Prison.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: When my son was coming up here to this prison, he thought he was coming to the end of the world.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: When I found out he was at Red Onion, I broke down, and I cried so bad hard when I found. I said, Lord, my son is in Red Onion. (Unintelligible) I tell you, I do.

YOUNG: And by that, did she mean it's so far away?

RYERSON: It's so far away.

YOUNG: Yeah.

RYERSON: Just to sort of describe the geography of Red Onion is it's on a former strip mine site. And it's in this tiny, little town of Pound, Virginia, and you have to drive miles back on to the strip mine to even get to the prison.

YOUNG: In fact, we hear that prisons are replacing mining in some areas as a source of jobs and revenue for towns.

RYERSON: Towns will end up putting up a lot of the money upfront to get the prisons to locate in their communities. And then in many cases, once the prison is built, the job requirements for getting employment at the prison are so high and rigorous that many local people aren't actually even able to work there. So what often happens is they become these kind of commuter workplaces where people will live outside of the county. They won't actually put their kids in the local school system. They'll just sort of come in and out and really have no connection with the local community.

YOUNG: Well, into this mix of prisons and a rural area comes your radio station. What does it like for you to hear - I mean, you've got these hip-hop shows going out and these calls coming in. Let's listen to another one between a mother and a child.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: How are you doing?



UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Singing) A, B, C, D, E, F, G.

YOUNG: These are heartbreaking.

RYERSON: They are heartbreaking. It's a pretty intense experience to be in the studio every Monday picking up the phone calls. And you know on some level that you're the wrong person on the end of the phone, that it is a one-way conversation and that the people inside hearing these calls can't respond. But often, you know, the calls end with we'll talk to you next Monday, and so we know that for many of these callers, this show is their main form of communication.

YOUNG: Yeah, you are the sponge. You're the one taking them in, so you have to hear all of these calls. That's going to be hard.

RYERSON: It is hard. We also have built a relationship with many of our callers. And so before, you know, I'll pick up the phone and I'll say, hi, welcome to "Calls from Home." Would you like to leave a shoutout tonight? And then people say, hey, is this Sylvia? How are you doing tonight? What's the weather like in Whitesburg? And it's kind of a beautiful thing also that these families know there's people there in that community close by to those prisons that care about their loved ones that are incarcerated there that want to do something to support them.

YOUNG: Well, then we should say that the prisoners have to do something on their end as well. They have to buy headphones. They have to buy radios.

RYERSON: That's right. The main way that the people inside hear the show is through buying a radio or now, in some cases, an MP4 player from the prison commissary, which can range and cost anywhere from 14 to $50. You have to be able to afford that to hear the show. But we also know that for some prisoners that can't afford to own either of those devices, people inside actually do share. And the way, in some cases, that works in Red Onion, for example, if you're in segregation, you're - it's one person to a cell, but you're on a shared vent system.

And so we've gotten letters where people explain how if they have a radio, they'll hold the radio up to the vent in their cell, and then everybody on their vent system, which is around four other cells, can also hear the show through the vents.

YOUNG: How do the rest of the people in Whitesburg feel about this? You've got other programming, we should say, programs about eating healthfully. There's another I noticed about - that helps get violins to kids.

RYERSON: Fiddles (unintelligible).

YOUNG: Fiddles. Fiddles - that's right - to kids.


YOUNG: So concern with the arts. But here you have this prison music program. Do any residents object to it?

RYERSON: You know, I'm sure that our regular bluegrass listeners are not listening to the hip-hop show Monday nights, 7 to 9. But we get very little negative feedback from it. Generally, people are pretty supportive of understanding the role the show plays for family members. I think the show helps to humanize who the people are in the prisons in our area that are so invisible but so close to where I'm living in Eastern Kentucky. But to hear the voice, like we did earlier, of a 5-year-old calling in to say good night to his uncle really changes how you think about who's locked up there, I think.

YOUNG: Sylvia Ryerson, director of public affairs programming at WMMT. She produces Hip-hop from the Hilltop and "Calls from Home," the hour-long call-in show that links families and friends to their loved ones who are in prison. Sylvia, thanks so much.

RYERSON: Thank you so much for having me.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Hey, baby. This is (unintelligible). To my husband at Red Onion, all is well with me as I trust is with you. I'll be here, sending you our strength. I love you.

YOUNG: Again, one of the many calls that come into WMMT and are played on their weekly "Calls from Home" feature of people sending messages to their loved ones in prison. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.


I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.