Words Across Walls: Discussing Modes of Communication with TGIJP and Calls From Home

Shared organizing across prison walls comes with its own unique difficulties, especially with regard to maintaining networks of communication. Relationships between imprisoned and non-imprisoned people are stifled at once by logistical obstacles, as our mode of speaking is limited primarily to written rather than electronic mail, and by repressive political forces such as surveillance and arbitrary censorship. Yet in spite of these conditions, people continue to develop novel ways of connecting with each other across concrete, razor wire, and steel. Recently, The Abolitionist spoke with Kelly Lou Densmore from Transgender Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco, CA and Amelia Kirby and Elizabeth Sanders who are involved with the Calls From Home radio show produced at WMMT in Eastern Kentucky. This article was compiled through their responses.

The Abolitionist: Can you give some background on your respective projects? What exactly is the work that your organizations do? What are some of your underlying goals of this political work?

Transgender, Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP ): Stiletto is our bi-annual newsletter or magazine and has been in existence for ten years. Our readership is TGIJP members inside prisons, so primarily Black trans women, other trans and gender non-conforming people, and anyone in the broader sense of the TGIJP community. We send it to those in prison for free and then also to some of the closest community members on the outside. We also bring it to events and provide it to people who come by office. All of the writing is for members inside with the main goal of getting info inside prisons. There are about 1,500 people who are currently on our mailing list. Additionally, every Tuesday we have a volunteer mail night where we respond to letters from people who are locked up. Through that program we probably send in several hundred more annually.

The content always includes an update on the organization and a motivational message from the Executive Director of TGIJP, Janetta Johnson. She wants to make sure that people know that we are thinking of them and that they are not alone. It is a very loving and kind message that kind of serves to embrace our community. We always have a section on positive news around trans people, like if there is, for example, a political win such as a trans person getting elected to office or winning trans inclusion in Medicaid. We include this because the dominant narrative around trans lives, particularly Black trans lives, is negative on so many levels. We also feature a cultural component through poetry, stories, and artwork. We accept submissions year-round and sometimes will republish stories from Black Lives Matter or Black and Pink. Our submission and editing process is pretty relaxed. We usually chose articles that are about current or powerful issues that will resonate with our members. Stiletto is very interactive in that we include questions to solicit information from our members on the inside. We want to hear about people’s living situations or updates on issues with obtaining commissary items. People write us back and we respond to those letters during our mail night. This is also an important component of our “Legal Corner” column. We provide updates on legal patterns and changes in California and nationally and get feedback from members about how those patterns and changes are playing out in the prison where they are locked up.

Calls From Home (CFH): Calls From Home is a call-in radio show on WMMT, a community radio station in Eastern Kentucky in the coal fields of Appalachia. It was started in 2001 as a part of a broader project that was originally called Holla’ to the Hood and became Thousand Kites. There were multiple strands of community-based media production happening around the issue of the prison industrial complex, particularly the use of prisons as rural economic development, so that was kind of the impetus for the project. WMMT is housed at Appalshop, which is a community media arts organization based in Kentucky in the coal region. By the time Calls From Home was really up and running, there were eight prisons in the WMMT listening area, which includes state and federal prisons in Western Virginia (Red Onion, Wallins Ridge, Keen Ridge, and Big Sandy). WMMT is volunteer run, so there is a wide variety of programming.

At the time that Calls From Home emerged, Amelia Kirby had been working with collaborator Nick Szuberla on the documentary film, Up the Ridge, which focuses on the construction of prisons as economic development and really looks at the consequences of using prisons in that way both on the places where the prisons are being constructed, but, more importantly, the lives of people who are put in those prisons and their families and extended communities. They were using every tool they had at their disposal to explore stories connected to that narrative. At WMMT, there was a hip hop and R&B show on Monday nights that was followed by a Southern rock show, and both of these shows had cultivated audiences inside prisons. We knew this because people were sending letters and making requests, and the DJs who were doing those shows really embraced that and were really receptive to it. When it was announced that the hip hop show DJ was leaving, Amelia and Nick took over that time slot as a way to maintain the connection with the station’s audience on the inside. At the outset, we focused mainly on receiving letters and doing requests and shout outs. One evening, the sister of someone who was listening inside one of the prisons called the station and asked if we could put her on the air to do a shout out to her brother. We had this moment of clarity when we realized that the radio signal goes straight through the wall in the way that the phone system and letters cannot because of the various barriers to those forms of communication.

The Abolitionist: How is your program a communication tool for inside/outside organizing? Do people on the inside use your program to self-organize?

TGIJP: This is our organization’s main form of communication with people inside. Things are happening politically and socially on the outside could impact our people on the inside, but they have limited access to that information, so we try to lift the barriers to access through Stiletto. A reader will see something in an issue about Black-led organizing, for instance, and will write back about how that is seen or plays out behind prison walls. In this way, we are in direct dialogue with people’s critical theory on current events. TGIJP’s legal and policy agenda is entirely based on the needs of people inside. The impetus for SB310, which allowed access to name and gender change for trans people in jails and prisons, came from people responding to questions in the Legal Corner column. The work that we prioritize and take on is directly informed by the responses that we receive to Stiletto.

CFH: The force of hearing the actual voices of people who are being impacted by the prison industrial complex; on their family lives and the ways that they are able to maintain connections with their loved ones as well as the consequences in peoples lived experience at the emotional level is a really potent way to humanize what is happening at the systemic level. One year, we decided to do a non-denominational holiday special during the Christmas season. Appalachia is a very Christian region and we felt that people would be at their most receptive around messages of compassion at this time. At this point, the state of Virginia was contracting with multiple states, and private prisons were also functioning in the region, which meant that there were prisoners in the listening area who were from Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Connecticut, and all over the country that had no chance of seeing their loved ones in person. We did a big outreach push and got a huge turn out with a three-hour show of wall-to-wall calls. One of the ways we recognized the impact of this particular show was an interchange with an angry caller who had phoned in at the beginning of the show and made comments such as “this is sick,” “you shouldn’t be doing this,” and “these people don’t deserve this.” After the show, he called back to apologize and said that he understood the value of the program. This was a huge affirmation that we were on the right track. In addition to being a really critical service for people who were trying to stay connected, this was also changing the narrative about who is in prison and what it means to be a prisoner.

Calls From Home has been used as an organizing tool in other ways as well. For instance, Appalshop has a popular education curriculum about prison expansion in central Appalachia and in particular prisons as economic development in that region, and we use audio from families and letters from people inside writing into the show to contribute to the multi-media narrative of the curriculum. In 2012, there was a hunger strike at Red Onion State Prison and one of our listeners who was in prison there was able to call in and read off the demands on the call. Even though that strike was eventually broken through various repressive and brutal tactics on the part of the administration, this was an unprecedented way of being able to have direct prisoner to prisoner communication to connect people from different prisons. Most recently, the ACLU of Virginia launched a campaign to end solitary confinement, and we aired an interview with the ACLU to get that news out. We also have ongoing open lines of communication with our imprisoned listeners to engage with people around the content and the development of the program as well as to find out what issues they want to hear more about or are of interest and importance.

The Abolitionist: What are some of the challenges that your experience, both infrastructural and ideological?

TGIJP: Stiletto ends up being highly censored by prison administrations and many are rejected. We don’t currently track which prisons are strict about content. Additionally, people get moved or transferred constantly, which makes it hard to keep on top of our database clean-up process. As an organization we have an internal lack of capacity to deal with that issue. Another challenge is deciding what art and poetry to include in each issue because there is so much good stuff. It’s really hard to let people know that their piece wasn’t chosen.

CFH: We are very lucky to be working with a WMMT and Appalshop that are very supportive. Communication with prisoners is very much part of their values, and the people who are locked up in the region get to be part of their listening community. One challenge, though, is just the structure of the program as all volunteer. This sometimes means that we pay inconsistent attention to the letters that come in based on what else is going on or that the volume of the letters prevents us from giving them all the same attention. Ideologically, we definitely get push back from the state. Two of the prisons where we have the biggest listening audiences, Red Onion State Prison and Wallins Ridge State Prison, were at one point ready to shut the whole thing down and used the excuse that somebody had sent a coded death threat and endangered the life of a prisoner. They were going to go through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which was going to threaten the ability of WMMT to exist. We worked with the station to figure out a response and were able to negotiate a compromise to run the show on a delay, so that we would record the calls and then play them back an hour later. This worked out better for us structurally, though we wouldn’t give the prison administration credit for this mind you, as it meant we got a lot more calls on the air. We continue to get occasional calls from the Virginia Department of Corrections, but we have a commitment to protect people’s information and to keep the show on the air.

The Abolitionist: How does this work build leadership of imprisoned people and uplift their self-determination?

TGIJP: Because our policy agenda is directly connected to the responses that we get to Stiletto, we are putting many of the decisions about the policy strategy and direction of the organization in the hands of our members. This means that trans women of color who are in prison, a community which is historically marginalized subjected to extreme state violence, is getting to drive the policy and legal work of this organization.

CFH: In the beginning, we did not have the mission of uplifting prisoner’s self-determination as an articulated goal. There was, and continues to be, a very clear power differential in terms of us on the outside, how we are able to engage with the project and how people on the inside are able to engage. This is not an open line of communication for the most part in that the broadcast is not a dialogue. It is a tremendously mediated space, and, in many ways, we struggle with feeling like we are not the right people on the end of that phone line. We always made it a central value that it was a collaborative process within this set of limitation. Part of that is expanding and trying to blur the sense of rigid divisions about the narrative that we were getting as a community in Appalachia. The state has a very intense propaganda campaign around the construction of prisons in this region that includes the narrative that these prisoners are not human, that the people who are going to be locked up here are the worst of the worst. Part of the work that we do is making space for the human voices of the people who are both in and affected by the prisons, including people working in the prisons and who live near them, to lift up the notion that the net of consequences and ripple effects of incarceration are harming this vast array and terrain of people.

Kelly Lou Densmore is the Legal Director and Staff Attorney at Transgender Intersex Justice Project. She is a white, cis-gender, queer femme, born and raised in the Bay Area.Kelly Lou has been a dedicated organizer for racial and economic justice, prison abolition and queer liberation ever since her teens.After graduating from Golden Gate Law School in 2013, Kelly Lou has been using her lawyering skills to support social movements. She fights hard to bring our loved ones home from prisons, jails and detention centers.

Amelia Kirby is an Appalachian activist, cultural worker, and small business owner. Most recently, she worked as the communications and development coordinator at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a nonprofit law firm providing free legal work for people impacted by the extraction industries of the Appalachian coalfields.She worked for eight years as a media producer at community media center Appalshop, where she co-founded and co-directed the Thousand Kites and Holler to the Hood projects, as well as the documentary film, Up the Ridge.

Elizabeth Sanders is co-General Manager of WMMT. She was raised in eastern Kentucky and remembers coming to Appalshop as a kid for a Roadside performance in the 90s and became a volunteer programmer at WMMT in 2010. She serves on the Executive Committee of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, is a member of the STAY (Stay Together Appalachian Youth) Network, and was selected to be part of the 2014 cohort of the Young Climate Leaders Network.

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