Wednesday, February 14, 2018

'Calls from Home' radio show connects inmates in Central Appalachian prisons with their faraway loved ones

Prisoners often get messages from loved ones in letters, but how about by radio? WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky., has a unique show, "Calls From Home," that for 20 years has broadcast loved ones' recorded messages to inmates in nearby prisons. More than 5,000 men are incarcerated in six federal and state prisons in the range of WMMT, in Kentucky and Virginia.

Map shows primary signal coverage of WMMT-FM
It's no coincidence that so many prisons are located near Whitesburg. "Pitched as a new source of economic development amid coal power’s decline, prisons began sprouting up around Appalachia in the 1970s," Henry Gass reports for The Christian Science Monitor. "Most people in the community don’t have a problem with new prisons being built in the area . . . though they have grown skeptical of the promises of thousands of jobs."

However, "When prisons started coming in to the region . . . the inmate population and the local population were very much pitched against each other by the department of corrections and state officials," Rose Hackman of The Guardian reported in 2016, after interviewing Amelia Kirby, who started the program when she worked at WMMY, a service of the Appalshop arts-and-culture cooperative.

“We were told that the prisoners coming in were going to be the worst of the worst criminals. Then they were telling inmates they were coming to the last place on earth where violent and racist hillbillies lived,” Kirby told Hackman. “They really worked hard to create this kind of demonizing language. . . . We wanted to counter that narrative. The show is humanizing on both sides. It shows that we are not violent racists, and that people in prison are humans with families that love them. It’s difficult to hate someone when you hear their grandchild tell them they love them on the radio.”

Gass reports, "WMMT bills itself as 'a 24-hour voice of mountain people,' and as far as the station is concerned, if the inmates can tune in, then they are mountain people too." Elizabeth Sanders, WMMT's co-general manager and a producer of "Calls From Home," told him, "Anything we can do to help make the barriers between them and their families a little bit less, then we’re fulfilling part of our mission as the radio station here."

The radio messages are the only way some people can connect with their incarcerated loved ones because of difficulties finding transportation to the prison and the expense of calling a prison. It sometimes cost more than $10 per minute to call someone in prison until the Federal Communications Commission announced a rule in 2015 capping how much telecommunications companies can charge for such calls.

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