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September 27, 2006 - (VA)

Up The Ridge: Enlightening Virginia Prison Film

By Nick Stump

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Over the years, George Allen has spent a ton of money on cowboy hats and boots in an unsuccessful attempt to identify himself with the folks of rural Virginia. Southwest Va, or coal country as some think of it, was the location where Allen forever buried his political career with the now infamous macaca statement.

Southwest Virginia is one of the most beautiful places in the country. It is the region settled by Jim Webb's Scots-Irish ancestors and to this day, Mr. Webb still has kinfolk living in the area.

These rural Virginians and their neighbors in Eastern Kentucky have much in common. They have dug the nations coal, cut the nation's timber and throughout our history have provided our country with more than their fair share of soldiers to fight our wars.

But beneath the romantic history and the scenic beauty of the mountains there have always been underlying economic struggles. The coal business has always been a feast or famine proposition, dependent on prices and demand and as coal is a non-renewable resource, there is no stable future for rural Virginians in coal mining. The family farms of the past are gone everywhere in rural America.

Though many Americans picture a relaxed bucolic life away from the hustle and noise of the city, the reality of Southwest Virginia show workers competing for minimum wage jobs, and those who do better sometimes spend eight hours a day or more just driving back and forth from work.

Making a living in the mountains has never been more difficult than it is today for the people of Southwest Virginia.

When George Allen was Governor he had an answer for jobs in Southwest Virgina. What the area needed was a new industry -- an industry that would never shut down and one that would provide jobs for generation after generation of rural Virginians.

But George Allen didn't bring Toyota or Ford into Southwest Virginia. There were no new high tech jobs for Wise County. The new industry coming to the Virginia mountains was the prison industry.

In a new film, Up the Ridge, filmmakers Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby have produced a masterful piece of work, giving a raw and unflinching picture of the prison industry, the politicians behind the plan, the guard, and especially the prisoners in Wallens Ridge State Prison.

Up The Ridge is not just a film about what happens inside a Supermax prison. As much as anything we see the tough choices faced by communities in rural Appalachia. As we see more and more prisons built in Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and prisoners shipped in from as far away as Hawaii, New Mexico and Connecticut, I find myself wondering, can't we do better than this?

Is Southwest Virginia to become the prison capitol of the United States? When will the nation realize rural Americans can do more than dig coal, fight wars and guard criminals sent so far away from home and family?

For more information on Up The Ridge, visit

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