My First Prison Experience

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of my projects this year is a collaborative one; I’ve partnered with a divinity school student to learn about prison choirs and do some reflecting on the power of choral music, especially within the context of a church congregation (and considering what would happen if church music moved beyond the walls of the church).  We arrived at this topic because of my experiences with music and homelessness, and my partner Marilyn’s passion around racial justice and incarceration.  So together, we’ve been reading, interviewing, watching, and most recently, visiting prison choirs.

To put you in the mindset I was in the evening before my first prison experience, I must share with you the dress code I was required to follow: no excessively baggy or tight clothing, nothing spandex, no scrubs, no camouflage, no double layering on the bottom half of the person, no bobby pins, barrettes, or ribbons, no jackets, coats, vests, or outerwear of any type, no blue or black jeans, no jewelry, no dresses or skirts above the knee, no tank tops, no sweatshirts, sweatpants, wind pants or exercise clothing, no hats, nothing ripped, torn, or missing buttons.  Now, I’ve only shared about half the list, but it’s enough to give you a headache.  I’ve never spent so long picking out an outfit and then second-guessing my choices right up until the moment I was allowed into the prison.  Though to be clear, that wasn’t a very distinct moment either.  We were almost let in, but then kicked out. “You have to remove your nose ring.  And your cartilage ring too.”  Then almost let in, but kicked out.  “No scarves!”  Then almost let in, but kicked out.  “Who told you you could bring these photos in?”  The process was beyond frustrating.  I had been holding so much fear around meeting the prisoners, but in that moment, I knew the staff was the real test.

Once we finally entered the classroom, all anxieties dissipated in relief.  The men were so happy to welcome us, and joked, saying, “I hear you guys had a tough time getting in?  Commit a crime and they’ll let you in with no problem!”  The kind of joke that makes you bear your teeth and stretch your collar in discomfort, but the fact is, it’s true!  Prisoners have an easy time getting in and a hard time getting out, while volunteers face the exact opposite scenario.  The men we sang with that day were an unexpected blessing.  They are all a part of Boston University’s Prison Teaching Program, which enables prisoners to receive a college education while in prison.  This music class was just one of many classes they can take.  The three hour class passed too quickly, as have the weeks since that day.  I’ve been able to do a bit of reflecting on my experience, and I’d like to share a short piece I wrote on it with you now.  Nothing poetic (yet!), but perhaps a little more put together than my Thanksgiving break mind could handle right now!  Enjoy:

Last Tuesday, I visited a prison for the first time.  I spent time reflecting beforehand on how I was feeling.  The unsettling mixture of fear, nerves, and hopefulness were all confirmed in the thirty minutes it took to get through “the trap” and enter into the classroom.  The process of stripping down – removing all accessories, letting go of all belongings, following orders, and being escorted around – really got me thinking for the first time about the life of a prisoner.  All this to be contrasted so immediately as I stepped into the music class – a gathering of about thirty men, circled up, eager to learn.  Suddenly, in the face of fear, we were singing “Lift up your voice, be not afraid”; in the face of hopelessness, we were singing “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King”; in a setting infused with loneliness and distrust, we were holding hands, making eye contact with one another, and uniting our many voices as one.  Music carries this power.  When we sing together, we are creating a counterculture – a radical experience of life and love and community that is too often dismissed in today’s society.  This is true of all choirs, but especially in the setting of a prison.  Within a lifestyle where freedom no longer exists, the men of this prison experience an oasis in music class where they are freed to express themselves, to create music, to write their own lyrics, to gain a sense of leadership, and to discover how their individuality does contribute to a community.  As André explained at the end of class, all of this is experienced through a focus on the process rather than the product.  The men were encouraged to “make a beautiful sound” by Jamie, not because they need to please a future audience but simply because they can.  There is such rich potential for music to be used in the bringing together of communities, especially communities that may not have regular access to musical opportunities.  At the end of my visit, each member of the class thanked me for coming, and many thanked me especially for my bravery.  I was so moved to feel such a joy in singing and an eagerness to welcome others into the family they’ve formed.  The fear and nerves I felt in entering the prison transformed into hopefulness as I walked out, leaving a piece of myself with the choir, and taking their message with me.

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