Published:  April 20, 2012

Chris Duran understands the value of a phone call. Duran pays roughly $2.80 for a 15-minute phone call to talk with her partner who is incarcerated at a detention center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That same call in Colorado would be $5.00, the difference is attributed to the unregulated prison phone rate system. Phone companies will often include high commissions to state prisons within contracts in exchange for being the exclusive service provider. The rate of these commissions inflates the cost of phone calls for families in states that have failed to regulate this practice.

Published in Inmate Telephone News
V.20 No.35 | September 1 - 7, 2011
Feature Archive
By Marisa Demarco
 

Family-Support
Folks met up at La Plazita Institute in the South Valley and split into groups to offer narratives about New Mexico’s prison system. Photo By Eric Williams

It started with a chess game. Volunteer radio DJ Nick Szuberla challenged the Wallens Ridge State Prison to offer up its most skilled inmate for a match.

Nick Szuberla of Thousand Kites
 

Nick Szuberla of Thousand Kites. Photo by Eric Williams

The game took five months to complete. Szuberla would announce his move over the airwaves each week. Then a letter would make its way to the station from the prison in Wise County, Va., issuing a counterstrike.

The DJ lost to Big Daddy Duke.

"Holler to the Hood," Szuberla's hip-hop program, was the only one like it in central Appalachia's sea of bluegrass. Back when the 1,200-bed prison opened in April 1999, prisoners were shipped into Virginia from around the country—and the number of people listening to the community radio show increased dramatically. "We were a friendly voice in an unfriendly situation," he says. The request line lit up. Letters started pouring in from prisoners—some of them describing human rights abuses. "We got a couple hundred in the first few weeks of the prison opening," Szuberla says.

The Literacy Project in a meeting to discuss inmates and families concernsPhoto by Eric Williams
Nick Szuberla and the Media Literacy Project collected stories that will be shared on community cable channel 27, KUNM and at kitescampaigns.org.

Coal mining was the major employer in that region for decades. As the process became more mechanized, the local economy tanked. To shorethings up, states in the area built prisons as a form of economic development. Hence: Wallens Ridge, Virginia's second major supermax prison. Szuberla's from nearby Whitesburg, Ky., a town that's not even twice the size of the prison's population. (About 2,100 people live in Whitesburg, according to the 2010 Census.)

With this newfound audience reaching out to him, Szuberla organized a day where families and friends of prisoners could call and be broadcast on the radio. He wasn't sure what to expect. As the day began, some people rang the station to say they were upset about the show. Correction officials disliked it, too, and were vocal about it on the airwaves: The prisoners don't deserve this, they said.

Then kids started calling in. Their families couldn't afford the prison's phone rates, so they hadn't spoken to their parents in months. Family members from other states began offering shout-outs to incarcerated relatives whose locations were unknown. The nearest bus station to the prison is about three-and-a-half hours away, and the nearest airport is about the same. Spouses, mothers, grandmothers—hundreds saturated the airwaves with messages for their faraway loved ones in lockup.

Published in Prisoner Support