WESCONNECT: You discuss inequality in telephone charges for regular Americans and inmates. Do you think this is an issue more Americans should be aware of?
SYLVIA RYERSON: Absolutely. Up until a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission this past August, families and their loved ones incarcerated were paying rates as high as $17 for a 15-minute phone call. A few private phone companies control nearly the entire U.S. prison phone industry market, and were securing contracts with prisons based not on providing the lowest cost or highest quality service, but rather, the highest “commission” they would pay back to correctional agencies, state and local governments.
Really I see high prison phone rates as just one example of how communication in prison, and between prisoners and the outside world, is prevented and circumscribed in all kinds of ways. All of this combined works to further isolate people from their families and home communities, making it all the more difficult for people to re-enter society once they are out.
WC: Maintaining communication for inmates is one of the most effective ways to avoid future incarceration. Have you seen this correlation firsthand?
SYLVIA: Every month we get dozens of letters written to us from our listeners inside, telling us what this radio show means to them. Here’s a quote from a letter I opened just a while back -
“My release from the USP [United States Penitentiary] Big Sandy is Feb. 17th, and I honestly don’t think I could have made it without you all’s show Hip Hop from the Hill Top/Calls from Home. I would sincerely like to Thank You All for the show, cause not only myself but it helps lots of guys in this situation keep their sanity.”
Communication is what makes us human. Our show isn’t enough, it’s only a small Band-Aid for a much larger crisis, but we hope to be a small outlet where people can hear from their loved ones every week, a constant reminder that there are people desperate for them to come home again, and that when they get out they have a home to go back to.
WC: You answer and archive calls for WMMT's weekly segment "Calls from Home." How has this job affected you as a person?
Often people assume it’s really hard to be the one on the other end of the phone, recording the calls every week. And sometimes it really is. But also, so many of the callers are so determined to stay positive, to lift up the spirits of the person they are calling, their messages are really inspiring.
To me the show is a testament to the power of family, and to what we can accomplish if we work together across racial, cultural and geographic divides to keep families connected and strong. I’m not sure how it’s affected me as a person, but it always leaves me with an aching feeling that, as a society, we can do so much better than this.
WC: You graduated from Wesleyan in 2009. How would you say your education has impacted your life and career? Any favorite memories of Wes?
My time at Wesleyan has everything to do with where I’m at today. I’ll always be grateful to all my Wesleyan professors who challenged and supported me throughout, and to my friends from Wes who continue to be the greatest inspiration to me. I’ll never forget sitting in Professor Eudell’s incredible seminar class “Towards an Archeology of the U.S. Prison System,” my junior year. I wrote my senior thesis on prison expansion in Central Appalachia, and after I graduated I felt the need to come back to eastern Kentucky, to the communities where my research was based – and I’ve been here since.