Highlighted Stories and Reviews
A spirited, intense discussion followed the screening. The audience was diverse, college professors, correctional guards, officials connected with the department of corrections, ex-prisoners, and families of prisoners and ex-prisoners shared their points of view. Interestingly enough, everyone, no matter what side of the issue they were on agreed that the system is faulty and needs fixing.
When George Allen was Governor he had an answer for jobs in Southwest Virgina. What the area needed was a new industry--an industry that would never shut down and one that would provide jobs for generation after generation of rural Virginians. But George Allen didn't didn't bring Toyota or Ford into Southwest Virginia. There were no new high tech jobs for Wise County. The new industry coming to the Virginia mountains was the prison industry. http://www.raisingkaine.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=4753
But the documentary’s biggest breakthrough may be on the soundtrack. It’s part traditional mountain music and part hip-hop. The result is hill-hop or hick-hop — and one of its creators is from Richmond.
This film presents the guards as real human beings, just trying to make a living and improve their economic condition by taking a hard job that most people, frankly, don’t want. These people are, frankly, taking risks. Indeed, even some of the most effective critics of the prisons are former guards. The people of Big Stone Gap, in other words, are presented as people in a coal/tobacco town trying to take advantage of an economic opportunity.
BY BILL SIZEMORE THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT
TWO WILDLY DIVERSE Virginia subcultures meet in a new documentary film making its South Hampton Roads premiere today . "Up the Ridge," an unblinking look at the state prison system, will be screened at Norview United Methodist Church in Norfolk on the next-to-last day of a weeklong statewide tour.
In 1999 the filmmakers, Nick Szuberla and Amelia Kirby, were volunteer DJs in Whitesburg, Ky., for what they say is the Appalachian region's only hip-hop radio program when they began receiving hundreds of letters from inmates at Wallens Ridge State Prison in nearby Big Stone Gap, Va. The prisoners alleg ed human- rights abuses and racial tension between the mostly black inmate population and white guards .
Szuberla and Kirby then began what became a six-year project. Through the lens of Wallens Ridge, the one-hour film examines the social impact of housing thousands of inner-city criminal offenders, many of them from Hampton Roads, in distant rural prisons. Wallens Ridge and nearby Red Onion State Prison, both built in the late 1990s, are the legacy of the get-tough policies of then-Gov. George Allen, now a U.S. senator running for re-election. Dubbed "supermaxes" for their maximum-security features, they were designed to house an expected flood of violent offenders resulting from Allen's lengthening of criminal sentences and abolition of parole.
The hardscrabble counties of southwestern Virginia actively lobbied for the new prisons, seeing the hundreds of state jobs they brought as an antidote for the declining coal economy. As it turned out, the state ended up with a surplus of cells that were rented out to other states with overflowing prisons.
"Up the Ridge" focuses in part on the deaths of two Connecticut inmates, a 20-year-old drug offender who apparently hanged himself and a 50-year-old rapist who died after being zapped repeatedly by guards with a stun gun. Beyond that, the film examines the effects of the distant mountaintop prisons on inmates' families. At one point the camera crew rides along with the Watson family of Newport News, who rented a van to visit their relative in Wallens Ridge. The 10-hour, all-night trek drives home the isolation those prisoners endure.
"There's no bus service. There's no airport. There's no train service. There's no cab service," said Szuberla. "So unless you have a vehicle and the will to get out here, it's pretty tough."
The filmmakers got only limited cooperation from the state Department of Corrections. They interviewed the director, Allen appointee Ron Angelone, in his last week on the job in 2002 but were not allowed to tour the prison or talk to wardens or guards, even off duty.
In an attempt to lighten the film's heavy content, the filmmakers came up with a unique soundtrack: a fusion of hip-hop and traditional Appalachian string music that some have dubbed "hill-hop." The collaboration between Richmond-based hip-hop artist Adolphus "Danja Mowf" Maples and traditional mountain musician Dirk Powell produced an amalgam of lilting banjo strumming over a driving urban beat. "Getting Dirk and Danja together, we thought that was a nice, positive cultural moment," Szuberla said.
Meanwhile, Szuberla's and Kirby's weekly radio show, "Holler to the Hood," is still going strong. In addition to music, the show takes calls from listeners - many of them inmates' relatives offering prayers, relaying complaints or just passing on family chitchat to their loved ones. The station's signal doesn't reach Hampton Roads, but live streaming audio is available on the Web.
Ironically, Szuberla said, even though the coalfield economy is still struggling, the audience for "Holler to the Hood" is expanding. "The population out here is shrinking," he said. "The only place it's growing is in the prisons."