Five Things to Know About… Sylvia Ryerson’s ‘Calls from Home’

A student’s film examines a radio station that broadcasts messages of support to incarcerated people across Appalachia — and takes aim at mass incarceration.
Sylvia Ryerson hosting “Calling from Home” at WMMT-FM and a promotion image from the documentary.

Sylvia Ryerson hosting “Calling from Home” at WMMT-FM and a promotion image from the documentary.

For more than 20 years, a community radio station in the tiny town of Whitesburg, Kentucky, has delivered personal messages of love and encouragement to the many thousands of incarcerated persons being held in the eight state and federal prisons within its broadcast area.

Every Monday at 7 p.m., radios throughout the cellblocks are tuned to WMMT-FM 88.7, “low on your dial but high in your hearts.” The station plays songs requested in letters sent from the prisons, while family and friends of the incarcerated call the station’s “shout-out line” to record their sentiments. Most live far from this Central Appalachian region.

Then, from 9 to 10 p.m., the messages are relayed out across southeast Kentucky, southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia, and parts of east Tennessee and western North Carolina. The broadcast is a lifeline for the incarcerated listeners, who typically have very limited access to telephones to stay in touch.

Calls from Home,” the name of the program, is also the title of a new, 31-minute film directed by Sylvia Ryerson, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies in the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The film explores the radio show’s role and impact, while also taking aim at mass incarceration by highlighting the vast physical distance between the incarcerated and their loved ones, and how the frequent use of lockdowns and solitary confinement furthers their isolation.

It will be screened at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 27 at the New Haven Free Public Library (133 Elm St.). Afterward, Ryerson will be in conversation with Matthew Jacobson, the Sterling Professor of American Studies, History and African American Studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and co-director of the Yale Public Humanities Program, and Elizabeth Hinton, professor of history, African American studies, and law. Admission is free.

Yale News talked with Ryerson after previewing the film. Here are five takeaways.

Ryerson herself co-directed and co-hosted “Calls from Home” from 2010 to 2014.

WMMT is part of Appalshop, a community-focused, multi-media arts organization located in Letcher County, Kentucky. Ryerson learned about the organization from a friend, and spent two college summers at the non-profit’s former home in Whitesburg, the first as an intern at the radio station, and then returning the following year to conduct research for her undergraduate thesis on prison expansion in Central Appalachia. After graduating from Wesleyan University in 2009, she returned to work at Appalshop full-time, first as an AmeriCorps VISTA member, then joining the staff of the radio station. Through her years of hosting the weekly radio show she came to know the people who are featured in the film.

I wanted to create a piece that could really show the relationships that were being made through the radio show,” she says. “I thought of the film like a triangle — there’s the radio station, there’s where people are calling from, and there are the prisons. How do we show those connections being forged through the airwaves?”

The radio program and the film relate to Ryerson’s dissertation.

Ryerson’s Ph.D. focus is on carceral expansion and modes of resistance to it in Central Appalachia, which now hosts 16 prisons, many built on former coal mines. Building prisons in rural areas “disappears people,” she says; they are neither seen by their loved ones, who often live far away, nor by the residents of the communities in which they are located. “Calls from Home” works to change that.

They’re reaching a general listening audience, not just the families and loved ones sending and receiving messages,” she says. “There is a really important role the show continues to play in terms of changing public perceptions of who is incarcerated. If you hear someone’s 5-year-old daughter calling in to say good night, that can really challenge the assumptions we’ve been taught about who is inside of these prisons.”

The film includes the voices of two incarcerated men who are devoted listeners.

Both men were in supermax prisons in Virginia, where filming is not allowed. So Ryerson worked with an animator, Javier Barboza, to create animated scenes building from their audio recordings and artwork.

William “C Walk” Griffin, who has been incarcerated for more than 27 years, talks about how much he looks forward to the Monday night messages from his wife, Michelle, who lives nearly 400 miles away. When the show airs, he says, “I put my headphones on and it’s like I’m not even here. Like, I feel like I’m soaring. My mind and my soul, my heart ascend beyond this place.”

Peter “Pitt” Kamau Mukuria spent eight years in solitary confinement in southwest Virginia. He talks about he and others using the prison’s vent system to share the show with those without radios. Ryerson was familiar with his talents as an artist and commissioned him to draw a self-portrait for the film. In the drawing, Mukuria sits on his cell cot, his bare back to the viewer, the word “Southside” tattooed across his shoulders. His headphones are plugged into a small radio tuned to 88.7.

The film is meant to be an organizing tool.

Ryerson kept it short for precisely this reason; a screening of a 31-minute film leaves plenty of time for discussion afterward. She is currently working with two different coalitions to build film impact campaigns that will support their advocacy work.

The Virginia Coalition on Solitary Confinement is planning a 2024 statewide screening tour to support ongoing efforts for the reinstatement of parole (Virginia abolished parole in 1995), an end to extreme sentencing, and an end to prolonged solitary confinement in the state prison system. Michelle Griffin, whose husband William remains incarcerated in southwest Virginia, and other people featured in the film will headline the tour as speakers.

The Building Community Not Prisons Coalition is fighting a proposed 1,400-bed federal prison in Letcher County, Kentucky (notably, the home county of WMMT). Ryerson is a co-founder. They are planning a national screening tour in major cities that are poised to become primary “sending communities” should the facility be built. Ryerson hopes the film can help to build relationships across the vast and diverse geographies of the U.S. carceral state to strengthen what she says the scholar and poet Leanne Betasamosake Simpson describes as “constellations of coresistance.”

There’s enormous resistance to this prison,” Ryerson said. “I believe a lot of that resistance is rooted in the ‘Calls from Home’ show and the circles of activism that have grown from that.”

Ryerson helped to develop a similar radio program to reach people in ICE detention in New Jersey.

She and Luis Luna, a New Haven community organizer and artist, co-produced “Melting the ICE/Derritiendo el Hielo,” a bilingual radio show that shared testimonies and strategies against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention and deportation. It ran for about two years, broadcasting to four of the largest detention centers in New Jersey from WPKN-FM 89.5 in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and WKCR-FM 89.9 at Columbia University. It is also available here on Spotify.

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