It was 11 o’clock on a Friday night in mid-December and Lessie Gardner had already taken a bus 100 miles from her home in Washington, D.C., to the Richmond, Va., Greyhound station.
Soon she would board a 15-passenger van for a seven-hour drive to a small town near the Kentucky border. Her ultimate destination was a supermax state prison called Red Onion. It holds 800 inmates, one of whom was her son, Michael.
She had not seen him in 15 years.
Their prolonged separation is a familiar story to the thousands of family members around the country who live long distances from incarcerated relatives. Many are poor and unable to take time off from work, find child care or pay for transportation and overnight lodging. But on this night, Gardner and 11 other passengers, 10 women and one man, were on their way to Red Onion and another supermax called Wallens Ridge. The trip, free of charge, was made possible by local philanthropy but also, in a way, by the power of a radio program — “Calls From Home”— that airs once a week on a tiny Kentucky radio station, WMMT. A freelance producer there named Sylvia Ryerson, who had helped arrange the trip, was behind the wheel.
Ms. Ryerson joined the station in 2010, almost a decade after it began broadcasting “Calls From Home,” which offers prisoners’ relatives the chance to call in and record greetings that are then played from 9 to 10 p.m. on Mondays. Inmates can listen on Mp3 players that are sold at the prison commissary.
Danny at Red Onion this is grandma. I just want to tell you that I love you and miss you and I hope everything’s going ok for you. I heard you’ve been on lockdown.
Hey Uncle Frankie this is Sarah, your niece. I hope that you get out of prison very soon I don’t even really know you all I can do is just hear you on the phone, or something. I miss you around the house, you know. I’m five years old now. Mom’s doing good.
This is going out to my dad. I love and miss you very much and let you know that Mama is going to let me keep the puppy. It’s dark gray with black spots. It’s really fat and I named her Maggie.
Ryerson, 28, was moved by these simple messages.
“I got to know these families through the show and heard their lives unfolding through the radio,” Ryerson said. “I learned more and more about the actual obstacles these families faced in getting there to visit.”
Her new-found awareness has led to yet another radio program, an hourlong production with high-quality audio in which Ryerson spends time with an inmate’s family members and helps them to record the kinds of personal reflections or even events — a birthday party, for example — that create a sound package more fulfilling than a simple “shout out.” She calls it “Restorative Radio.” The messages are like audio postcards from home.
“That is the power of using sound as this medium,” Ryerson said. “It’s something that can get through these walls.”
While she was waiting for funding for “Restorative Radio,’’ she finally found time to coordinate the van trips. With an WMMT staffer and the Union Church in Berea, Ky., enough money was raised to sponsor two round-trips, in September and December, at $900 each. Another was planned for this month.
The van Ryerson drove from Richmond in December arrived at 7 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 19, pulling into a McDonald’s for breakfast. The visitors would be staying overnight at a hotel next door. At 8:30, some went off to to Wallens Ridge. When the van returned, Lessie Gardner and some others headed to Red Onion and arrived at 9:45.
“I was overwhelmed, it was wonderful,” Gardner said. “He was so happy.” Gardner said she stayed with her son until 2 p.m. and repeated the visit on Sunday.
“He said, ‘I can go on a little longer now.’”