Student Journalists Document The Pandemic in Appalachia

Photo: Provided/Madison Buchanan

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource. 

“Hello,” the call began. “This is a prepaid debit call from an inmate at the Virginia Department of Corrections.”

Madison Buchanan, a 19-year-old college student, pressed 0 to accept the call and was connected to Jacob Alan Shouse, Offender Number 1101441.

“I want to thank you so much for helping me out with this,” Buchanan said.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s fine,” Shouse replied. “I’m all about new friends, new advocates, activists, anything positive.”

Shouse, 37, had his own agenda in speaking to the student journalist. He asked if he could read Buchanan a letter he had recently written.

“Yes, please, absolutely,” she said.

“Living through this coronavirus pandemic inside the prison walls ⁠— razor wire plantations ⁠— reestablishes helplessness in an exacerbated form,” Shouse read. “One’s life takes an obvious backseat to prison bureaucracy, modern-day slavery. They’re misleading the general public into a false sense of security, that incarcerated loved ones are safe.”

The Virginia Department of Corrections reports 500 total cases of coronavirus infection among inmates at the Greensville Correctional Center and Greensville Work Center, where Shouse is incarcerated, as well as 47 prison staff members. One person incarcerated at Greensville has died from the virus.

Despite that, Shouse said PPE had not been widely available; his “ill-fitting sneeze guard” was not washed regularly; and prison workers and staff wandered freely between units where COVID cases had been reported, and those where none had been.

A resident of Greensville’s mental health unit, Shouse knew that increased isolation or time alone in his cell would have a serious toll on his own mental health and those of the men around him.

“There are intense requirements and guidelines for facilities set forth by state and federal mental health authorities that are not being adhered to,” Shouse reported, “primarily due to us prisoners being voiceless and utterly helpless under a repressive thumb.”

The prison call system interrupted him. “You have one minute remaining.”

Buchanan is a student documentarian with the Appalachian Media Institute, a program in Whitesburg, Kentucky, that trains Appalachian young people to document the region through their own lens.

AMI doesn’t typically provide a theme for its documentarians, preferring to let the young people choose what was important to them to document. But when the pandemic hit, AMI program director Willa Johnson knew it was the perfect opportunity to explore what the pandemic was like for people living in the mountains, told in the voices of those who knew it best. “We saw this as a really crucial moment as filmmakers, as documentarians, to document this really pivotal moment in our community.”

The result was “A Mask on the Mountains: Dimensions of COVID in Appalachia.” Other AMI documentarians produced stories about how the pandemic was impacting the foster care system, high school sports and local festivals.

Buchanan knew right away that her story would be about people who were incarcerated during the pandemic. “I grew up with a family that has always been involved with criminal systems, there’s been a lot of jail in my life,” Buchanan said. “My family are good people, they just made bad choices. And they would always tell me stories about jail and how bad it is, trying to sway me away from making bad decisions, I guess.”

A spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Corrections said incarcerated people were tested for the coronavirus, given ample PPE, and kept in pods away from inmates who had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Shouse finished reading his piece, but the urgency in his voice remained. Previous efforts to get his words beyond the prison’s walls had been stymied. “They censored it and blocked it and never told me that they did,” he said. “Did you get that?”

The connection frayed; the line beeped three times.

“Hello?” Buchanan asked.

There was no reply.

Through My Eyes

Telling stories about Appalachia gave Buchanan an up-close look at the ethics of doing journalism.

“Growing up in Appalachia has definitely shaped the way that I tell stories,” she said. “Obviously I’ve lived through all the positives of living in Appalachia, it being beautiful here, the good people and the good communities like Appalshop and things like that. But I’ve also experienced the negatives: poverty and diseases like black lung. So I have a full spectrum of Appalachia, the good and the bad, and that makes it so I can tell stories without making it seem hopeless or making it seem like everything’s peachy.”

The tension comes at a time when journalists across the country are reckoning with the very idea of objectivity.

“The views and inclinations of whiteness are accepted as the objective neutral,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Wesley Lowery recently in an opinion in the New York Times. “When Black and brown reporters and editors challenge those conventions, it’s not uncommon for them to be pushed out, reprimanded or robbed of new opportunities.”

In different ways, the same has been true for storytellers from Appalachia, where outside journalists, filmmakers and photographers have had a monopoly on defining the region.

By some definitions of objectivity, Buchanan’s personal experience with the justice system would disqualify her from reporting on it. But she doesn’t see it that way. “My family having so much experience with the criminal justice system only makes me more able to see it for what it is,” she said.

Looking at the criminal justice system through an Appalachian lens is particularly powerful, said Johnson. “One thing that a lot of working-class and poor communities have in common is that the pipeline from school is either hard labor for low wages, or it’s jail and prison. And communities that struggle economically know that you’re a success if you have a job, and if not, then jail and prison are most likely in your future.”

Buchanan added, “There’s so much poverty and there is a lack of jobs here, and I feel that it is easy to fall into a situation where you have to do what you have to do to survive. It’s hard to get on your feet here and it’s easy to fall down, so it sets it up to make the criminal justice system here especially unfair.”

Buchanan said she has shown her radio story to Shouse, who loves it. She is majoring in convergent media at Morehead State University, and hopes to continue telling stories about Appalachia and the criminal justice system in the future.

Note: The Appalachian Media Institute is a project of Appalshop, which is home to Ohio Valley ReSource member station WMMT.

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