I’m off to Mississippi to visit with Thousand Kites, one of the projects described in my just-published book, New Creative Community.
In prison slang, a “kite” is a message, such as a note or letter to a prisoner. The project is a collaboration between Holler to the Hood (H2H) and Roadside Theater, two groups based at Appalshop, a community-based media and cultural center in Eastern Kentucky. When prisons became an economic development strategy for economically depressed rural communities, two super-maximum security facilities (“supermax”) were built within shouting distance of Appalshop.
Two young activist artists, Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby, produced a hip-hop radio show at WMMT-FM, Appalshop’s community radio station. As deejays, they received hundreds of letters from inmates at Wallens Ridge Prison reporting human rights abuses that beggared imagination. Indeed, Human Rights Watch had already documented similar abuses at Red Onion State Prison, a nearby facility.
Nick’s and Amelia’s investigations are reported in a sobering one-hour documentary, Up The Ridge, which can be previewed and ordered at the H2H Web site.
The story it tells is terrible, crammed with blatant official disregard for basic human rights, even for the value of a life. Without shame, officials lay out a cruelly punitive philosophy, making no attempt to dissemble: these prisons serve to inflict punishment without the merest gesture toward rehabilitation, education or human decency. Most horrifying of all is that it is done for monetary gain. Virginia built Wallens Ridge on spec, gambling that other jurisdictions would pay generously to ship their prisoners to its brand-new supermax, and Virginia won the jackpot. Income from other states paying to house their prisoners earns millions of dollars each year over and above operating costs, especially because many local people, faced with the decline of traditional extractive industries, will work cheap. Undoubtedly, their own exploitation adds to the resentment many heap on the minds and bodies of inmates in their charge.
David Tracy, a 20-year old inmate, committed suicide. He was sent to Wallens Ridge by the Connecticut correctional system, which paid handsomely to ship out hundreds of prisoners to relieve overcrowding. Connecticut was permitted to export prisoners at least 20 years of age with at least a year to serve. Tracy, a slightly built first offender, was in prison on a simple possession charge, with a year and week left to go on his sentence; he had turned 20 just before being shipped to Wallens Ridge in irons, without notice, under cover of night. Larry Frazier, a diabetic described as gentle in manner, died when his blood sugar crisis was treated with flesh-burning stun guns and five-point restraints (being completely immobilized, strapped to a table); his cut-open body was shipped to his family wrapped in bloody sheets. These men and many others were treated like slaves—literally.
What’s more, the exportation of prisoners amplifies the punishment of a sentence, separating the prisoner from family by hundreds, even thousands of miles. As the mother of one prisoner said in the film, the whole family is punished by being unable to visit their incarcerated loved ones unless they can assemble the time and wherewithal for a major journey.
In the Community, Culture and Globalization anthology Don Adams and I edited (available free from the publications section of www.rockfound.org), Paul Heritage wrote about a theater project in Brazilian prisons, working with both guards and prisoners. Going into the project, the foreground seemed clear: the appalling situation of the prisoners was the main concern, with guards perceived primarily as obstacles to the work.
As Paul wrote, “The role the guard has come to play in the prison is to extend the boundaries of punishment beyond that of the sentence. To do so they must sever the human connection the men have with each other, with themselves as guards and with society beyond the prison. The theater we are trying to create seeks to do the opposite.”
But he learned that guards’ roles are also conditioned on the treatment meted out to them by society, which then helps to shape their treatment of prisoners. “What I could not have predicted,” Paul wrote, “was the level of emotion and anger toward the society that discriminates against them for where they work. As one of them said in an early workshop, the three worst jobs in Sao Paulo are street cleaner, grave digger and prison guard, but the prison guard is the worst because it combines the work of the other two.”
Among the redemptive moments in Up The Ridge were footage of family members, working hard to right the wrongs done to their sons and husbands, interviews that described former guards leaving what for them had been solid employment because they could not face the moral contamination of helping to run supermax prisons, and court rulings that held the state of Connecticut responsible for its misdeeds and ended its prisoner export business. But the practice goes on elsewhere. I hope you will see this film and encourage others to do the same.
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[…] I’ve been writing for the last few months about Prison Nation, what this country has become in the process of creating and filling the largest prison-industrial complex on the planet. (Check out my blog essays on October 24th, October 31st and November 22 if you want to read previous installments.) […]