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.
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.
Coal mining was the major employer in that region for decades. As the process became more mechanized, the local economy tanked. To shore things 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.
"We have a nation inside a nation."
-Nick Szuberla, Thousand Kites founder, on America’s 2.3 million incarcerated citizens
Then kids started calling in. Their families couldn't afford the prison’s costly 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.
The criminal justice system touches every family in the country, Szuberla says. "We have a nation inside a nation." According to the Bureau of Justice, there are about 2.3 million U.S. citizens in prison or jail. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world.
By the end of that experimental call-in day, some of the very same people who'd criticized the project called back to commend it—even a few correctional officers. "We found a way to use radio to crack open the silence around this issue."
After recognizing the disconnect between communities and prisoners, Szuberla created the Thousand Kites project. A "kite" is prison slang for a message. Using low-cost video and radio, the project collects stories about the justice system and then tries to get those stories into the prisons—and back out—to spark a dialogue. He's trying to create a feedback loop between those incarcerated and those outside. This can help break down stereotypes, he says, but the simple act of story gathering has also become the catalyst for political action. Gradually, as more people connect and become involved, grassroots movements emerge that seek to reform the prisons in their areas.
"People start off by wanting to connect and give updates and share that level of story," he says. "But then they begin doing analysis, sharing, looking at policies and laws and how to get involved. To me, it's not so much about the content. It's about folks breaking the silence."
The project often reignites relationships between families and their imprisoned relatives. "You have folks who are incarcerated for long sentences often who have little contact with families." Studies have shown that recidivism drops when there is frequent communication with the outside world.
New Mexico is home to 10 prisons. Six are state-run, and four are privately operated. There are about 6,300 inmates in our state, according to the Corrections Department. The Media Literacy Project invited Szuberla to spend a few days in Albuquerque collecting narratives. He gave a presentation in mid-August at the South Valley’s La Plazita Institute, a community organization that works with incarcerated and gang-involved youth. A roomful of people shared their stories. Here are a few.
She's seen it all from the outside.
Bineshi Albert has five siblings. Her three brothers have all been incarcerated at some point, she says, and one of her sisters did time in the juvenile system. "We were all raised the same," she says, "but we made different choices."
Her two younger brothers were convicted of assault together, she says, but one was 15 and the other was 16. The younger of the two was tried as a juvenile, and the older brother was tried as an adult. The family was able to visit the juvenile offender consistently. It was far more difficult to do that with the teen who was tried as an adult.
“There's so much disconnect from their family and being a human person. This letter reminds them that they belong to somebody.”
Though they committed a crime together, their punishments diverged, Albert says, and it shows in the results. The younger brother is enrolled in college, and the older brother picks up odd jobs with anyone who's willing to hire him. "It's difficult for him to rent a home, to get a job, to get a scholarship. It's a challenging situation for him to be able to survive and maintain staying out of the system."
Albert has struck up a romantic relationship with a former felon. She's known him since middle school, when he first broke the law. Years later, during the last stretch he served, she sent him letters frequently. "It's like food for them. There's so much disconnect from their family and being a human person. This letter reminds them that they belong to somebody, that they belong to a family."
She also sent along political magazines and information about the larger world. "Those are like gold inside," she says. "Everybody was just hungry to have something to read." The people who have reading material are the hotshots, she says.
Albert says her story—her history of interacting with the penal system, of visiting loved ones in jail and sending up kites—is not an uncommon one. "As a Native person, it's scary to know that the statistics for even my one family are true for a lot of families."
Overall, he estimates he did seven calendars—seven years in lockup.
Erick Pacheco went in and out. "It was a revolving door," he says.
There was even a time in the late '90s when Pacheco was not incarcerated but banned from the Southeast side of Albuquerque. He had to get a travel permit from his parole officer to visit his grandmother. Upon his release in 2006, Pacheco was ready for things to be different.
That's why he says he's working at La Plazita Institute, to give back to the community, since he took so much away from it.
“When I thought I was a convict, that's what I was. Today, I think of myself as a good father.”
Pacheco is a senior majoring in psychology at UNM, but for a good chunk of his life, he was under the delusion that jail was his home. His time in the outside word seemed like a vacation. He didn't have contact with his family. "My mother and them sort of cut the cables on me," he says. "I'm the black sheep in the family. I'm the first one to ever go to prison." His lack of contact with ideas and people beyond the walls made prison more in focus, he says. "I guess you could say it made me forget the outside."
He saw fellow inmates calling their girlfriends or moms just to get in an argument, then hang up on them, then call them back to fight some more. The phone calls could cost $15 for 15 minutes. "That conversation of stress just cost you $100." Whose fault is that? he asks. The prison? The phone company? "Or is it the guy making the damn phone call, putting his family through the expense because he wants to visit now?"
For Pacheco, the path to healing has been about taking responsibility. You can't wait for the system to change, he says. You have to change yourself. "When I thought I was a gangster, when I thought I was a dope fiend, when I thought I was a convict, that's what I was. Today, I think of myself as a good father. I've been there for my 4-year-old every day. I see myself as an A-plus student, and that's what I am. The only thing that changed in my life was my perception about what I was."
Shishmon Baily didn’t get into trouble with the law until late in life. He retired from the military after two decades with the Navy. At 46-years-old, things went south, and he went to prison. He did some time in Otero County, then was transferred to Los Lunas. He got out in 2008.
Communication, he says, is key. "Without the audience on the outside, we might as well be dead." He says friends and family should know that face-to-face visits are essential—otherwise, the info they get about inmates might not be 100 percent accurate. All mail going to and from New Mexico prisons is inspected, according to the Offender Family Guidebook, and pornography, gang-related materials and contraband are not allowed. But Bailey maintains that other topics are sometimes censored, too. "They can tell you anything about me. I can write you a letter to tell you what's going on, and they'll censor the letter as it's going out." If there's too much about the workings of the prison, the letter might not make it through at all, he adds.
"Without the audience on the outside, we might as well be dead."
Bailey's advice for prisoners is simple: Get as much training for the outside world as you can. Take all the classes and go through all the programs. That way, a former inmate can say, I may have been incarcerated, but please give me a chance.
Khadijah Bottom's son was sentenced to 13 years in late 2001. He was on the hook with other defendants for the same crime, she says, but he received the stiffest penalty. "It was one of those discriminatory sentences," she says. "There's a difference in how African-Americans are perceived in the judicial system, and it's blatant." African-Americans make up 2 percent of New Mexico's population, according to the census, but make up about 9 percent of its prison population. "Something is wrong with that picture, and it's not being addressed."
Bottom held on tight as soon as her son entered the system. "I'm one of those: You can't stop me when you got mine." When they sentenced her son, they sentenced her, too, she says. "My son was one of the fortunate ones because he had his mom, and he had his siblings." There was something to come home for. "As Jesse Jackson used to say, he was able to keep hope alive." If a person doesn't have inklings of hope for tomorrow, she adds, they just get better at doing whatever got them in trouble in the first place. "You feel like don't nobody give a damn no way." Someone has to cheer you on, she says, to tell you, You can do this. "It's not OK what you did, but it's OK because we can get past it. We're going to do this. It's a process. And without a doubt, it's not going to be easy. You're going to stumble, but I'm going to keep you from falling."
“It's not going to be easy. You're going to stumble, but I'm going to keep you from falling."
People in prison need contact, she says, any kind of contact. They need to hear someone say hello through the phone with a smile in their voice.
"A lot of people don't have support," she says. Without help, upon release, you've got a bull's eye on your back, she adds, and you're going to prison again. "We as a whole society and community have to start looking at them as returning citizens."
The government treats people like commodities, Bottom says. "Our state is capitalizing off incarcerating people. Where is the compassion in that?"
You wouldn't know it to look at her, but Sandra spent nine years in jail and been out for five. She didn't want to use her real name in this story because she says it might hurt her professionally.
Still, she's looking for resources for the other women she met in prison who will exiting soon. "I want to help them as much as possible."
Sandra is the mother of three children, and during nearly a decade in prison, she missed a lot of their childhood. But she called home whenever she could, trading in precious commissary food money for phone cards. The calls meant a lot to her, she says. "I still got to know my kids' voices and got to be a part of their lives, if even in a little way." But it was hard because she wasn't actually there. Sometimes, she learned after her release, her kids didn't want to worry her with things happening in their lives that she couldn't help with or affect.
"I still got to know my kids' voices and got to be a part of their lives, if even in a little way."
Seeing her kids grow up was a constant inspiration for Sandra to be a better woman, she says. Losing that connection, she adds, creates hopelessness and desolation in prisoners.
As hard as it is being imprisoned, leaving isn’t easy. If your family members haven't been to prison, there's no one to talk to about the transition. “The women who are incarcerated, I want them to know it's hard work being out here, but it's worth it. The women I've met who are incarcerated are so much better than prison." Sandra wishes they would not only seek family and friends but talk to and support each other on the inside, too.
"And if you have a loved one who's been locked up, don't give up on them."