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Postcards From the County

A music program for incarcerated men at Pittsburgh Institution in Canada changes lives and perspectives.

(Image: EL / TO; Adapted: Thomas Hawk, Pixabay)

“So, those are murderers and sex offenders you just worked with. . . . went pretty well, I thought.”


“Do you want to know who’s who . . . ?”

“Not unless they want to tell me. That’s already been dealt with. They’ve been judged and sentenced for it. It’s why they’re here. We have to see what else might be possible. I’m just the guy with the mic figuring out what sounds good.”

This was one of the first conversations I had with a prison official after beginning a music program for incarcerated men at Pittsburgh Institution in Canada.

I was first motivated to get inside when the federal government began dismantling highly functioning programs, the chaplaincy and compassionate care inside prisons. It was obvious the tactic was to wreak havoc on successful programming to rationalize privatization of correctional services. Input from American senators who had experienced first hand the perils of a punitive based private prison system was unwelcome. Our crime rate had been dropping for over a decade and the severity index was in steady decline for 17 years. The sabotage of the agrarian and other successful programming in prisons was blatantly not in the public interest.

In past circumstances, I have created protest albums, or held concerts to raise awareness and oppose injustice. This time felt different.I needed to get inside and contribute something positive to the prison environment. There was another important factor in my decision. I was watching our federal government launch a new “safe streets” agenda. They were spending more money on advertising than on victim services, and at the same time, systematically dismantling social programming inside prisons.

We have all seen tactics of sabotage used to disrupt and discredit the commons. When private interests wish to rationalize the privatization of activities that are part of the public estate, they need to break it first. When corporate interests turn to profiting from the caging of human beings, the situation is most heinous. Incarcerated people arouse little public sympathy, and it makes them vulnerable. Indeed, the entire corrections system is extremely vulnerable to neglect and exploitation when an agenda is afoot. Who is going to defend the rights of someone who has committed child molestation or murder? I really felt it was best to work from within.

As luck would have it, I met a prison chaplain of Pittsburgh Institution at a film screening of Music from the Big House. Our sensibilities matched and she made arrangements for my first session inside. To say I was nervous on that first visit would be to put it mildly. I had never been in a federal institution before and I didn’t have anyone to coach me. Not only that, I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do in there. Yet, whatever nervousness I had going in quickly abated when the music started. Some of the men had been in the prison choir, and the hymns they sang were songs from my childhood. The distance between us immediately lessened. Others who had little musical experience came forth with writings they imagined as songs. Some were curious and just wanted to observe. I sang them songs and talked about how I came to write them. A one-hour workshop turned into three, and only stopped because the men had to leave for count.

Our first task was to record a version of my song “Oblivion” for a local community songbook. I brought gear in and we turned the chapel into a temporary studio. Some of the men immediately took to running cables and engaging technically in the process. Others had an aesthetic connection to the song, and wanted to discuss my motive in writing it, and my influences growing up. We sang through it a number of times, stopping as questions or ideas came up. When I returned the next week, the men hadn’t just learned their parts. They had developed an entire counterpoint arrangement and written responsive lyrics to my lines. I could feel we were tapping into something strong. There was a very humble sort of request evident in the care the men were taking with the music; you feel the impossibility of holding onto anything in there, yet this was something each of them could own. It hadn’t occurred to me that we could make an entire album inside. I only felt I wanted to continue the work we had begun together.

Each week, over the course of 18 months, we would gather in the chapel at the appointed time to set the gear up, record and tear down before count. We had to work fast, and by repetition, the guys got adept at running cable and setting mics. Gradually some began participating in engineering; we were now in the process of making an album in prison.

I was bringing in different artists and friends to work with the guys, share professional experiences and sometimes just to visit. My mom came two days before Christmas and they served her proper tea and homemade cake. (This was just before the culinary program was slashed.) She asked if it was okay to inquire of them what their days were like and how they filled their time. They completely opened up and described to her their jobs, rights and limitations. They in turn asked her about my upbringing and what part music played in our home. One of the artists who came in, Sarah Harmer, was taken aback that the men were so informed and curious about her environmental work. “Everyone thinks we are locked in a cage in here and that’s it,” Jeff (pseudonym) explained to her, “but really, the fact that we stay in one place while the rest of the world runs around allows us to begin to understand patterns if we pay attention.”

Another conversation that is constantly with me came about when one of the prisoners was being paroled and requested a meeting. He was concerned that I wouldn’t keep the work up, which he said was having such an obvious impact on their lives. In particular he spoke to me about “Gary” who refused to come out of his cell for over a year, unless ordered to. They all thought he was done for before the music began. This same man had become the most enthusiastic cooperative participant and had exponentially increased his musical capacities in the weeks I’d known him, meeting me at the gate every week and carrying gear for me while he talked my ear off about ideas. The parolee told me this: “When I was trying to get that vocal right, you said something to me . . . ‘Stop trying to force it into what you think it’s supposed to be, and let it be what it is’ . . . that’s when it began to sound right. I realize it’s exactly what I have to do with my life when I get out of here.”

Here is a lyric from one of the men’s songs, “Christian Highway”: “I don’t ask you to believe in me / just trust in the God I serve / to help me become the man I could be / the son you deserve.” Brevity keeps me from relating more of the countless examples of how music was giving the prisoners opportunities for personal growth by providing a platform of personal worth not governed by external factors, but I can encapsulate an important lesson I have learned. In an environment like prison where everything bad is rewarded, and everything good is punished or taken from you, it’s most likely for an individual to deepen their identification with criminality: Politicians are lying, the system is against you, and your condition and sentencing is at the mercy of your legal representation, and how well they play the game.

Once the guys began doing something beautiful, it gave them stake in the present tense. This was laden with immediate joy and intense pain. We all have our demons and discouragements, but when those appear in the form of having harmed others, every tool is developed to avoid them. When suddenly you have something that makes you want to be present, you have no choice. You will either kill yourself, or find the immense amount of courage necessary to face who you are. I believe if you cross that threshold, you gain so much humility you are less likely to cause harm to others than most walking the streets today.

The prison as mass human warehouse stands as a major but normalized flaw of our societal evolution. Having made contact with human potential and watched people change against the harshest odds has made me consider deeply why our correctional systems exist in the manner they do. We take for granted the notion of collective punishment and ignore collective responsibility, the first necessity for an environment in which as many offenders as possible are capable of rehabilitating.

To those who take emotional issue with treating prisoners humanely, I will point out that most incarcerated people will one day be on the outside. How would you want them socialized? A conversation with the prison official a couple of weeks in went like this:

Official: “What are you doing in here?”

CB: “That might take a while to answer, probably at least lunch. . . . And you?”

Official: “I was the victim of violent crime and I became deeply interested in restorative justice. I also wanted to help perpetrators take responsibility for themselves and understand their crimes. I wanted to prevent others from experiencing what I did.”

That official is not alone. The number of people who have experienced violence and loss in their lives that one encounters working in prisons is humbling. Their voices sound quite different from those chanting for vengeance on the outside.

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