Radio Waves Break Down Prison Walls

The Calls From Home radio program connects inmates to life outside bars.

By Laurel Walsh

Journalists helping inmates, families stay in touch and informed

By Laurel Walsh

Photo: Laurel Walsh



“Mama loves you bigger than the sky,” a woman’s voice echoes through cells in 11 American prisons.

She’s speaking to her son Jojo, an inmate at Keen Mountain Facility in Oakwood, Va.

Her message comes in from a radio station 120 kilometres away. Careful hands guide her words across a soundboard, releasing them through an electrical transmitter and up into open air. They flow across the Appalachian Mountains, over dense forests and barbed wire fences. Thick prison walls fall away like smoke as the words pass through them and into radios tuned to 88.7 FM.

Jojo’s radio is on. He’s tuned in. The words move from the antenna down to the speaker, and come out, right into his ear.

“Hang in there, keep your head up,” his mother says. “Hope everybody listening is doing alright.”

More than 15,000 people in Canada, and 2.3 million in the United States, are currently behind bars. For those people, radio is a crack in the thick, guarded walls blocking inmates from the outside world.

Journalists and community radio organizers are filling those cracks with stories. Through radio, journalists are connecting thousands of prisoners with news from their families and the broader public. It’s important, personal information for people who otherwise would be left in the dark.

Most North American prison canteens stock soap, combs, candies and radios. Inmates can buy radios with money saved from their day’s labour, and listen to them during

down time.
Do you want some ink with that?

Radios can bring information and best wishes inside prison walls.

Radios are also a key ingredient in makeshift prison tattoo guns.

Most homemade tattoo guns in prison are powered by transistor cables and mini motors from radios with cassette decks. Other radio wires are wound through a pen to make needle points that poke ink into skin.

Prison tattooing is outlawed in Canada and the United States.

One radio program, Calls From Home, regularly crackles out of radios in prison cells. This is how Jojo’s mom has the chance to send him messages of love and support.

Calls From Home is based on phone calls from friends and families of prisoners, as well as critics of the prison system. They leave voice messages on an answering machine at WMMT community radio station in Whitesburg, Ky. Their messages and song requests are edited to air alongside prison-related reports from journalists. Once a week, listeners on both sides of the barbed wire can tune in to 88.7 FM for an hour of colourful, personal storytelling and reports on prison news.

Calls From Home was founded in 1998 by radio journalist and self-proclaimed “media artist” Nick Szuberla. Whitesburg is his hometown. He has witnessed its steady decline from “the heart of Appalachian coal country” to a town with a grim prison landscape.

The number of inmates kept in the 11 prisons surrounding the town is five times larger than Whitesburg’s own population of 2,100. Szuberla calls it a “prison industrial complex.”

Justin Piché, a criminology professor at the University of Ottawa, has collaborated with a group called End the Prison Industrial Complex. He says the idea behind the complex is simple: corporations and governments are shaping the prison system with profits, not people, in mind.

He says governments exploit the poor and mentally ill by cutting funding from social support systems and sweeping them into the criminal justice system, where governments and corporations can make money off prison labour. He says Canadian prisoners make an average of five to seven dollars per day manufacturing a variety of products. In the U.S. prisoners have worked producing food and clothes, and even items for Victoria’s Secret, without unions or benefits.

Eve Goldberg and Linda Evans work to advocate for inmates’ rights. In an essay, they write prisons are so lucrative that poor towns are “falling over each other to secure a prison facility of their own.”

In Whitesburg, the coal business is decaying while the prison business is taking over. Of the 11 prisons near WMMT’s radio transmitter, two are classified “supermax,” a security level one step higher than the well-known “maximum security.”

Szuberla volunteered for WMMT when he moved back home after graduating from a communications program in Ohio. He found his place in the deejay booth as host of the station’s hip hop program, Holla to the Hood. He began receiving letters, many of which were written by local inmates. He figures it was because he ran the only hip hop show “in a sea of bluegrass and country music.” He calls the music he plays “hill hop.”

Many of the inmates’ letters shared information on prison incidents they believed were being misreported. They alleged one inmate’s suicide was reported to the media as a heart attack, and that guard brutality and human rights abuses were being blocked from public knowledge.

Szuberla describes these letters as like a rock being flipped over. People with eyes on the inside were sharing perspectives he’d never seen. Still, although the letters made for compelling stories, he felt he couldn’t just side with the prisoners and give airtime to their allegations without fact-checking the claims.

So he gave inmates an offer in the meantime: an apolitical, long-distance chess game against whomever they thought was their best player.

Enter Big Daddy Duke.

The state knows him as Stuart Duke, federal inmate number 232827. Convicted of murdering a young woman, he has insisted for more than 20 years that he was framed. The courts don’t agree; he’s still incarcerated today.

In March 1998 Duke was living in Wallens Ridge State Prison, one of the supermax facilities near Whitesburg, in a town called Big Stone Gap.

For five months Duke and Szuberla played a long-distance chess game. Duke would send his chess move in a letter to WMMT and Szuberla would broadcast Duke’s move along with his own during Holla to the Hood. The prisoners rallied behind Big Daddy Duke, as did listeners who weren’t incarcerated. Dorothy Duke, Big Daddy Duke’s mother, called into WMMT to express her thanks and excitement.

[pullquote] “Communication outside, with people who let them know they’re loved and someone cares about them, it shows in their actions.” – Jodie, a caller to Calls from Home. [/pullquote]

Inmates wrote to Szuberla, saying corrections officers who caught wind of the event took away Duke’s radio, breaking the ring of communication. Other prisoners kept the game going by shouting Szuberla’s broadcasted moves so Duke would know what to play next.

Big Daddy Duke won.

That December, Szuberla organized a one-day radio event where anyone in the country could call WMMT and share personal prison stories. “We didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said. “Hundreds of people called in. We started to hear stories of people who didn’t know where their loved ones were, or a child who hadn’t spoken to their father in ten years – families that had become disconnected.”

In April 1999 Human Rights Watch published a report on the standards of living in some of the prisons around Whitesburg. It supported many of the claims made in the inmates’ letters, including guard brutality and restricted access to rehabilitation services like literacy classes and spiritual guidance.

Szuberla realized he could create a regular radio show where the voices of people like Big Daddy Duke and Dorothy Duke could be heard, alongside reports and articles needed to help “unearth these suppressed stories.”

He began broadcasting more Calls From Home shows and special prison reports to connect prisoners with their families and educate the public on issues not being covered in traditional media.

Szuberla credits his rural Kentucky upbringing for shaping his opinion that “some people belong in prison.” He witnessed enough childhood neighbours getting in trouble with the law to know he didn’t want to ever land in prison. Statistically, his white skin and college degree suggest he’ll probably never have to.


Nearly 80 per cent of people incarcerated in American prisons in 2012 are Hispanic or Black. In Canada in 2010, 18.5 per cent of the prison population was of First Nation, Métis and Inuit descent, despite Aboriginal people only making up 2.7 per cent of the country’s population. More than 80 per cent of American inmates had no source of income or made less than $1,200 a month at the time of their sentencing. Less than 10 per cent of Canadians live below the poverty line, yet nearly 100 per cent of those behind bars come from that 10 per cent.

In the United States, just more than half of the prison population in 2010 were parents; bearing in mind the state only considers those under 18 to be children. These parents who are imprisoned have left behind 2.7 million children.

Calls From Home has grown to address these issues directly by researching and calling out the imbalances, all while providing a free, alternative form of communication for affected families. This radio program is not the first journalistic platform to wrestle prison-related issues to the forefront of public consciousness, but Calls From Home’s low cost and high impact is remarkable.
Families have phoned in to Calls From Home to express how much prisoners have benefited from being able to communicate with their loved ones.

“When they have that communication outside, with people who let them know they’re loved and someone cares about them, it shows in their actions,” said Jodie, a caller on the Kentucky show.

Seeds of Szuberla’s initiative have blown all across North America, taking root in the long shadows cast by prisons in other communities.

Calls From Home Kingston and Calls from Home Montreal are both modeled after the original Kentucky phone line and answering machine setup. The Stark Raven Media Collective and Prison Radio Collective in Vancouver report on similar topics and occasionally air segments of the Kentucky program. Once a month, Calls From Home Kentucky does a special broadcast aired on select community radio stations across the U.S. and Canada. On those nights, news, songs, and personal stories stretch through the skies from California’s Folsom Prison to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York State.

[pullquote]“If somebody is being incarcerated and the goal is to rehabilitate them, how is isolating them from the people in their lives that love them, and want to support them and want to see them heal … how does isolating them from those people make any sense?” – Vlada Bilyak [/pullquote]

Vlada Bilyak is the founder of Kingston’s Calls From Home program. She met Szuberla at a conference hosted by Allied Media in Detroit, a group with the hopeful slogan “media strategies for a more just and creative world.”

Bilyak is a writer, blogger, and documentarian whose thoughts push from her mouth at such a force, her most basic declarations sound like slam poetry.

“If somebody is being incarcerated and the goal is to rehabilitate them,” she asks, “how is isolating them from the people in their lives that love them, and want to support them and want to see them heal … how does isolating them from those people make any sense?”

Bilyak says Szuberla’s program amazed her; she knew right away it would work well in her community. Kingston has the highest concentration of corrections facilities in Canada, including the most maximum security prisons. Convicts are brought in from all over the country, making communication with their families that much more difficult.

Some may say this is for good reason. Within prisons like Kingston Penitentiary and neighbouring Millhaven Institution live Canada’s most violent and notorious criminals. Convicted rapists and murderers like Paul Bernardo, former Colonel Russell Williams, and the “honour killing” men of the Shafia family are among those being held within the bleak, grey prison walls that haunt Kingston’s skyline.

In September 2012 the federal government commissioned a report that revealed interest in privatizing more aspects of Canadian prisons, such as hiring companies to take over cleaning and staffing duties. Federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has also said prices for prisoner’s room, board and phone rates are set to rise, without the slightest hit of apology.

Bilyak says such views are “an important part of the discussion and our understanding of what justice looks like, and for whom.”

Canadian and American inmate populations are at an all-time high, with prisons pushing full capacity and double-bunking inmates in spaces designed for one.

“With the kind of changes happening here and now, I’m sure prisoner communication is bound to become a bigger conversation on this side of the border,” Bilyak said. “People are so thankful that a program like this exists. People feel so isolated where they are, and we can reach them.”


Listen to Calls From Home

This interactive map contains clips from messages directed to prisoners across the U.S., broadcast on Calls From Home.


This timeline shows the evolution of how prison-related issues have been covered in the media.