Calls From the Pen
Media Literacy Project’s one-night extravaganza keeps the line open for inmates
Rusita Avila says she knows a simple way to keep people out of prison: Let them talk on the phone.
Media Literacy Project staff, including Rusita Avila (second from top right), with Roadside Theater’s Edward Wemytewa and Donna Porterfield (second and third from top left)
“People who are incarcerated have a greater outcome when they’re released if they have greater support and contact with family,” says Avila, media justice organizer with the Media Literacy Project. It’s a strategy that can lower the number of offenders who return to prison. But even though the plan is simple, it isn’t always easy. Phone rates for prison calls are often inflated, and “in some places, it can be $17 or $15 minimum for a call,” says Avila.
According to a July 13 Boston Globe article, these rates can act as a barrier to communication for many prisoners’ families, who can’t afford the fees. The article tells of one woman who “had to consider her grocery bill every time the phone rang” and another who refused her son’s calls because she couldn’t afford them. Even public defenders are growing tired of the rates, the piece says, with some paying more than $100,000 a year for calls from incarcerated clients.
This is one of the issues Avila and her organization hope to bring attention to on Saturday, Aug. 4, with a parade, theatrical performances, film, live music and poetry. From School House to Jail House was borne out of a partnership with Roadside Theater, a Kentucky-based troupe that travels around the country helping groups build productions with an altruistic message. The Media Literacy Project also collaborated on this project with nearly a dozen other organizations, including the Native Health Initiative, Encuentro Latino, El Centro de Igualdad y Derechos, Zuni Pueblo, Wings Ministry, the Gordon Bernell Charter School and the Metropolitan Detention Center. Rap groups Sons of the Most High and the Rockmore Foundation also came on board, as did record label A.S.I. Records. The product of these collaborations has been three months in the making. And in the hopes of getting as many people as possible to the event, it’s also free.
From School House to Jail House extends beyond affordable phone calls for prisoners’ families. Avila says the event’s title is rooted in “the pipeline from school house to jail house, and youth being targeted.” The classic debate between treatment vs. incarceration is touched on in the program as well, and it’s a topic that translates to the way authorities deal with at-risk youth. “If kids have difficulty keeping up, there could be bigger parts of the problem that are not being addressed,” she says. But instead of focusing on extra resources in schools, youth are oftentimes criminalized. And while there’s been a push for early childhood intervention, she adds, that attention usually drops off by the time kids get into the third grade.
Members of Encuentro share a theatrical skit and civil rights legal information regarding routine traffic stops. Donna Porterfield (second from left) of Roadside Theater looks on.
The event will start with a parade outside the AirDance ArtSpace that audience members are invited to join. The rest of the night will be a cabaret of sorts, cycling through original skits, dancing, film and music. Included in this are audio recordings dubbed “Mama Say” and “Papa Say” from family members who called in to radio shows on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day to tell their loved ones in prison that they miss them.
Edward Wemytewa (Zuni) tells a story at the initial cultural sharing event hosted by Media Literacy Project and Roadside Theater at Encuentro in Albuquerque. Sonaí Perez, a Media Literacy Project Volunteer translates in Spanish.
Avila says that after months of work, she’s eager to see the final product. Avila is also the co-director of the South Valley’s Día de los Muertos parade, and she describes coordinating this effort as an entirely different experience. “It’s an organic process, and the way it’s come together has been pretty amazing.”