When former DJ Nick Szuberla launched the only hip-hop radio program in the Appalachian region, inmates from the two neighboring SuperMax prisons began writing him letters, recounting the racism and human rights violations they suffered while incarcerated. He responded by initiating an on-air chess game with the prisoners, a simple gesture that acknowledged, and provided brief respite from, their hardships. Szuberla soon began broadcasting the voices of prisoners themselves via a variety of artistic projects, including poetry segments, rap sessions, and collaborations between hip-hip artists and local mountain musicians. In one episode of the show, an imprisoned man expresses, in verse, a long overdue phone call to his brother, shortly after his mother’s passing. In another, titled Calls from Home, a mother updates her incarcerated son on family events and describes daily activities like her morning routine.
The radio show has since expanded into Thousand Kites, a “national dialogue project” and non-profit organization based in Whitesburg, Kentucky, that advocates nationally for prison reform, primarily by creating transparency around injustices that occur within the system. Szuberla sits at the helm of the organization, whose name is derived from the phrase “to shoot a kite,” which in prison slang means to send a message. At the heart of the Thousand Kites project is a vast website that features the stories of prisoners, their families, activists, and artists in the form of video and radio programs, blogs, and letter-writing campaigns. The site also includes news clips, press releases about legislative changes, and accessible educational activities such as “We Can’t Pay the Bill,” which outlines the rising costs of maintaining prisons.
Thousand Kites operates under the 40-year-old umbrella non-profit Appalshop, which supports regional arts in the Appalachian region, documents local traditions, and works to abolish stereotypes of the area’s residents.