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December 29, 2008 -- Courier-Journal (KY)

Voices From Home

Radio Show's Call-In Messages Comfort Prisoners, Their Families

By Katya Cengel, The Courier-Journal

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


One woman calls in every year to talk about her son.

He died in 2001 -- in prison. But she continues to dial the "Calls From Home" number, recording a message to be broadcast on the annual one-hour radio show for prisoners and their families, says Nick Szuberla, director of Thousand Kites, the community-based multimedia project behind the program.

To "shoot a kite" in prison slang is to send a message, and the message that Thousand Kites, based in Whitesburg, Ky., is sending is twofold: that it is important for prisoners and their families to be able to communicate, and that the community at large needs to become more familiar with the country's criminal justice system.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, there are more than 2 million people doing time in federal prisons, state prisons and local jails. But the number affected by these incarcerations is far greater, says William "Dub" Osborne Jr., assistant professor of criminal justice at Ferrum College in Virginia.

"It's not just impact on inmates," he says. "It impacts everybody; it impacts the whole community."

Osborne witnessed this firsthand while teaching at a community college in Appalachia about the same time two super-maximum-security prisons were built. Many of his former students took jobs at the new prisons.

His point is driven home in the "Calls From Home" show.

When the community hears people calling in saying, "I miss you," says Szuberla, it helps people to think differently about who is incarcerated.

Real Voices

This year, the show's ninth, callers include a 5-year-old girl who performed a piano recital, though she appeared to have no relation to any prisoner; a poet of "pretty decent fame"; and a young man speaking to his father for the first time, says Szuberla.

More than 200 people called in to record their message. The program will be carried on more than 200 stations around the nation before mid-January.

Sheila Cowley, of community radio WMNF in Tampa, Fla., says she expects the station's African-American public affairs and soul-music shows will air the piece, or segments of it. Many of her station's shows, she says, have devoted listeners behind bars.

But knowing there is an audience for the show was not the only reason she offered it.

"It's voices of real people, real voices, and I think that always really stands out on the radio," says Cowley. "We like real honest people on the radio telling their story."

And that is how Thousand Kites, an offshoot of the Whitesburg-based arts-and-education center Appalshop, began -- with real people's voices coming through on paper.

In the late '90s, about the time the super-max prisons came to the area, the community-run WMMT radio station, which Szuberla was then co-hosting, started receiving a number of letters from prisoners housed in the area. In those letters, the prisoners wrote of missing hip-hop music, something they weren't hearing a lot on the local country-music radio stations. It was from these letters that the hip-hop show "Holler to the Hood" took shape. It is also from these letters that Calls From Home came into being.

When people are behind bars, it is easy for them to "fall off the map" in the eyes of some family and friends, explains Szuberla.

"This show is a big holiday greeting that seems to touch people who haven't reached out to loved ones in a while," he says.

Lillie Branch-Kennedy calls twice every year -- once to talk to her son and once to talk to "all the prisoners and all those incarcerated, to get them to hear a message of hope."

She learned about the program from her son, who listened to "Holler to the Hood" while incarcerated at one of the super-max prisons near where Thousand Kites is based.

"My son used to tell me he waited every Monday," says Branch-Kennedy, who lives in Richmond, Va. He told her he wouldn't go off to watch football until he heard her voice on the Monday night radio program, which includes the call-in segment.

And if she didn't call, she would get a telephone message from him asking if she was OK, wanting to know why she hadn't participated. He also asked her to call for other prisoners who didn't have anyone calling in, she said, because he knew what a difference the messages made.

Julia Taylor, "Holler to the Hood's" DJ, hears the phrase "lifeline" a lot when prisoners write her about the show and the calls it airs.

"The weekday calls, and especially the holiday calls, is the one thing that keep them connected with their families. And family participation is so crucial and so important when we are talking about rehabilitation," says Branch-Kennedy.

As head of a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing crime and recidivism, Branch-Kennedy knows this firsthand. And as the mother of a prisoner, she knows that, because prisoners often are housed far from home, visits and calls can be expensive. When her son first went to prison, she said, it cost her $7.55 for 15 minutes on the telephone. Calls From Home and the call-in segment on "Holler to the Hood" don't cost respondents a cent.

The former, she said, is special because "You're sending a card -- especially for those families that can't come down to visit -- to hear that voice, to hear that love on the other side of it.

Reporter Katya Cengel can be reached at (502) 582-4224 or

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