BEHIND-THE-SCENES with Sylvia Ryerson

Tell me about the origins of the Restorative Radio project.

For me, the origins of this work go back almost a decade, when I first came to WMMT Community Radio, which is a part of Appalshop, a media arts and education center in Eastern Kentucky. I first came to the station as a summer intern in college, and ended up working there for five years as a reporter and public affairs director.

While I was at WMMT, I was part of Calls From Home , which is a weekly show that sends messages out over the radio from families to their loved ones incarcerated in one of the 7 prisons that are within WMMT's broadcast area.

Restorative Radio grew out of the Calls From Home show. I got to know a lot of the families that would call in every week, and I heard people's lives unfold over the course of several years through the messages they shared. Yet I’d barely ever met any of these callers in person. In part, this radio project grew out of a desire to meet face to face and do something together.

I was also interested in pushing the medium of sound further than what's possible in the Calls From Home format. I wanted to create long form audio pieces that would really dig into the sounds of life, to capture little vignettes of home – to use the art of sound recording to bring the outside world in.

When did you first meet Essie Manns, DeVaughn’s grandmother?

I first met Essie over the phone, talking to her on the weekly Calls show. She would call in regularly for DeVaughn. Essie lives 4 hours away in Roanoke, Virginia. She's elderly and can't drive long distances, so she's only able to visit every so often, when she can get a ride.

Around the same time that I had the idea for the audio postcards project, my Calls From Home co-hosts and I had raised some funds for van trips, to cover the costs of travel for families to visit these remote prisons. We knew that a lot of the families that were calling in every week hadn't seen their incarcerated relatives in many years. So I ended up organizing a couple of van trips last fall for families from all across Virginia to come down to Southwest Virginia to visit the prisons. Essie came on both trips and I got to know her in person and hear more about her story. A month after our first van trip together, I showed up on her doorstep with my recording equipment and we spent the whole day together.

Can you describe how the process of recording the audio postcards together works?

I gave people the option of either having me shadow them and do the recording myself, or lending them a recorder and them doing it Radio Diaries style. Most of the people I worked with were happy to have me record, but we still approached it as a co-production.

Before I showed up on Essie’s doorstep, we had talked about what she wanted to include in the postcard for DeVaughn. I made a little worksheet that had categories like people to include, favorite music, special places, memories. We talked through this together beforehand to brainstorm and begin to build out what the piece would sound like.

After we spent that entire Sunday together, I had hours and hours of tape. I made a draft and got feedback from Essie, who had final editorial say. I wanted to make sure she was excited about it before we broadcast it to DeVaughn.

Did DeVaughn know that he was going to have an audio postcard broadcast for him?

Essie actually talked to DeVaughn about it before she agreed to participate in the project, because she wanted to make sure that he was on board. Her fear was that he would feel left out of her recording this whole day with the family. But he was excited about it and really wanted her to do it. So she did it with his blessing.

It broadcast on WMMT on a Monday night. Essie had told DeVaughn ahead of time exactly when it was going to air, so he was ready and waiting. While the primary goal of this work is to be a way for families to connect with their loved ones in prison, it also aims to bring to light the challenges that families with someone incarcerated face, and to humanize those inside. I specifically worked with people who were open to their pieces airing publicly. By broadcasting these audio postcards during WMMT’s public affairs hour, they also reached a general listening audience, bringing family members’ voices to air in the very communities where their loved ones are incarcerated.

What reactions have you gotten to these postcards - from within the prisons and also from the general public?**

One of the most meaningful things I’ve heard from several of the prisoners who received an audio postcard is that they felt like they were right there in the room with their whole family. Many said it was amazing to hear so many voices at once, many they hadn’t heard in years.

Some feedback that struck me the most was that one participant said she felt like she could share more in her postcard than she could during an in person visit, behind the glass with an officer standing nearby. I think that speaks volumes to both the intimacy of audio, and the ways in which the prison system makes human connection extraordinarily difficult.

Because of the production time spent on crafting these pieces I do think they reached a broader listening audience than the weekly Calls show. I did get several positive comments from the general public that the postcards were very beautiful and powerful. I owe so much to WMMT-FM for making this work possible, and courageously supporting it.

Have you heard from DeVaughn or Essie lately, do you have any updates?

I'm still in touch with Essie. I hope to meet DeVaughn one day. I submitted an online application to get on his visitation list, and I’m still waiting to hear back from the Virginia Department of Corrections. One of the many insane things about prison visitation in Virginia is that you are only allowed to be on the visitation list for one prisoner – in the entire state. It doesn’t matter if you want to visit different people at different facilities. So if I’m able to go visit DeVaughn, while I’m there I couldn’t also visit anyone else in that prison whose family I also worked with in this project. I’d have to go through another online approval process – which takes months – to get off Devaughn’s visitation list, and be put on someone else’s.

Hosting the Calls show, you hear from so many people every week, but never get to know the details of their cases. Working this closely over a long period of time with individual families, I got to know much more about their individual cases, and many were just incredibly devastating.

DeVaughn’s story is that he was charged with carjacking and robbery when he was 19 years old. The car in question was recovered a few days later with no damage and no one was seriously hurt in the incident. But DeVaughn’s family couldn't afford to hire a lawyer. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He’s now 29, and he has maintained his innocence to this day. His family has reached out to places like The Innocence Project, but because there was no DNA evidence taken at the scene they’ve had a really hard time fighting his case.

One of the things his grandmother has been fighting for relentlessly is that his name is spelled wrong in the prison records - both his first and his middle name. And so she's been fighting for 10 years to have the Department of Corrections get the correct spelling of his name on record. It’s an infuriating and tragic story.

But Essie is a powerhouse! When you listen to that piece you can just hear what an incredible fighter she is for DeVaughn. But she needs legal support.

You recently left Appalachia, and moved to Brooklyn - are you working with families in New York now?

I'm in the early development stages for a new series. I’m hoping to work with public radio stations in upstate NY that broadcast to upstate prisons and families here in NYC that have relatives incarcerated upstate. Sadly the geography of the prison system in New York State is just as relevant for this work. But the greatest asset is that the infrastructure for this project already exists: public radio stations with local broadcast areas.

To me that’s part of the beauty of this project – really it’s simplicity. Prisons are by design the most closed and censored institutions in the world. Phone calls are expensive and limited, mail is opened and read and sometimes discarded, the internet is largely inaccessible and sending videos in is impossible. Radio is a rare technology that can freely pass through prison walls uncensored.

At the same time, using public radio to communicate with those incarcerated is not an end in itself, but a way to publicly raise deeper questions about the U.S. criminal justice system. Why is it so hard for families to stay in touch with their loved ones incarcerated? Why are prisoners sent so far away from home? Who is being sent to prison, for how long, and for what reasons?