Amelia Kirby was driving in a particularly beautiful part of her home county in the late 1990s when she noticed the construction. She thought it was yet another strip mine, taking off the tops of mountains to extract the coal beneath. But instead, it was the beginnings of a prison.
Amelia’s double-take was indicative of a general shift in central Appalachia, an area roughly spanning eastern Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, western Virginia, and southern West Virginia. As the coal industry has declined in an area long synonymous with it, states have turned to prisons as an alternative form of economic development. Since 1992, central Appalachia has seen the construction of four federal, three state, and one private prison, with another federal prison potentially on the way. Horrified by this turn of events, Amelia, then studying in Massachusetts, began to pay more attention to the construction and wrote her thesis on its social and economic impact on the local population.
Since then, Amelia, now 37, has dedicated her life to fighting these twin ills of central Appalachia: the injustices of coal mining and the social costs of mass incarceration. Living in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in a county with 13.8 percent unemployment and where 25.7 percent of people live below the poverty line, she hosts an innovative radio show, helps to protect miners’ rights, and works to bring cultural and economic revitalization to the community.
In some ways Amelia’s path was unexpected. She hadn’t planned on returning home after college, but soon found herself involved in the local arts scene, DJ-ing a hip-hop radio show and working on a documentary about rural prison construction. Then, in the early 2000s, she received a call from a woman in the D.C. area, who asked Amelia if she could speak directly to her incarcerated brother, who listened to the radio show. Soon, other families began asking if they could do the same, and the show was born.
Airing every Monday night, WMMT’s Calls From Home broadcasts messages from friends and family of those incarcerated in the area’s prison system, many of whom are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from home. Averaging about 40 calls a week and reaching seven prisons, the show is, for many inmates, the only contact with they have with their loved ones, other than writing letters. Some of the prisoners come from as far as the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the extremely rural area where they are incarcerated offers no public transportation, airport, train station, or bus station.
In addition to connecting families, the radio show is an opportunity to counter a prevailing mentality surrounding the prison population. “These are maximum security prisons, and the idea is that the people put in these prisons were the worst criminals,” Amelia said. “Then kids started calling in, and moms with kids. It’s so powerful to listen to; it gives you such a different picture of who is actually locked up. You’re being told these are the worst monsters, and a three-year-old calls and says, ‘I miss you, Daddy.’”
Initially, the show faced considerable opposition from the community; one particularly vitriolic local called in to accuse them of wasting their time on criminals who didn’t deserve it. He soon changed his mind, however, after hearing the show for himself. Since then, people from around the country have contacted the show runners in hopes of starting their own version.
Amelia Kirby, left, and Nick Szuberla of WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky., prepare for a prisoner call-in show, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2004. The show will let families of inmates share holiday greetings over the airwaves.
“We’ve had people from New Orleans get in touch with us, people from Idaho, from New York State,” said Sylvia Ryerson, one of Amelia’s co-hosts. “One of the things we love about Calls From Home is the technical simplicity of it. If you have a radio transmitter and there’s a prison in your area, you can have a show like this.”
While Amelia continues to run Calls From Home, these days she dedicates the majority of her time to eastern Kentucky’s other giant industry: coal mining. She serves as the development director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center (ACLC). The nonprofit law firm works against injustice in the coal fields on issues of mine safety, black lung disease, and environmental protection. A recent victory closed a legal loophole that allowed companies in Kentucky to mine land with the consent of only one owner, with as little as 1 percent interest in the land. In essence, a company did not need to consult all the landowners, or even the majority stakeholders, before mining—a practice in violation of federal law.
At the same time, Amelia also works to find viable economic alternatives for eastern Kentucky, which has long been dominated—or in her words, colonized—by coal, and is now struggling to move on. “The impact that the coal economy has is almost impossible to convey, how entrenched it is in people’s psychology, in people’s understanding of themselves, in their understanding of possibility,” she said. “The easiest way to summarize it is if you think of colonialism, being colonized by a corporate entity. What happens to places that get colonized is true of places that have a coal economy. As it’s departing, you’re starting to see the post-colonial insanity that comes in places that have been utterly dependent for a century or more.”
To combat this mentality, she opened Summit City, a bar-cum-community space in downtown Whitesburg, with art exhibitions, concerts, and open mic performances. Now in its seventh year, Summit City began as a pet project for Amelia and her former husband, who wanted to bring to Whitesburg what they usually left Whitesburg to find. It not only sparked downtown revitalization, but also awakened a new sense of possibility in a dispirited community.
“In the region there tends to be a notion that things aren’t going to work, that people here don’t want that kind of thing. You know what? They do. We are those people who want those things,” she said. “It shifted people’s thoughts about what is possible in a place where people commonly insist that nothing is possible.”
From coal mines to prisons to local art and music, Amelia has played a vital role in reimagining and rebuilding the local community in Whitesburg, and in working to make eastern Kentucky not only a place where people can live, but a place where they want to live. It’s not only a long-term investment in central Appalachia’s future, but an effort to connect the region, often thought of as poor, backwards, and ignorant, with the nation at large.
“She really sees all aspects of what it takes to build and maintain a community,” said Mimi Pickering, a filmmaker and president of the ACLC board. “It’s a great hope for the region to have people like Amelia, with that vision, to create a place where you want to be.”
“In this country we have a great urban/rural divide,” Pickering continued, “but with people like Amelia you realize that we’re really connected and that our issues are the same, whether it’s the African American in upper New York or an unemployed coal miner in eastern Kentucky. If we can work together, we have a lot more chance and opportunity to really change things in this country for the better.”