I 've been playing music my whole life. It started with banging out or seeking out rhythms. Guitar at age 12, bass (which would become my life's focus) at age 17, and bits of piano and drums on the way. Music has always been an integral and guiding light in my life…
Music is that thing that has always been.
Then one day, it was taken from me.
No instruments to reach for in times of elation or crisis, no computer software to allow me to compose and play back those symphonies I hear. It was all gone.
I lost music as soon as I stepped inside a prison.
My six years of traumatic, wrongful incarceration are the basis for a Grammy-winning album. One that is written in my head, existing as barely scribbled-out lyrics and notations on handwritten music staff, scattered throughout so many thousands of journal pages.
"There are only 12 notes, it's all about how you arrange them." Frank Zappa, his son Dweezil, Quincy Jones, and numerous others have their version of this truth.
I often wonder what this experience of being wrongfully convicted and unlawfully incarcerated after being the victim of police brutality sounds like. When I really get the chance to sit down with my bass again, what will it sound like? Maybe the off-sounding minor/major of a locrian scale that leads with the major seven as a root? It has a discordantly melodic tone. It would be easy to say prison is all blues or a simple minor scale, but it is so much more nuanced, subtle… insidious.
There is more to it than flat 5s, diminished 2nds, and suspended 11ths. All the notes, and even well-placed silences, cannot convey the emotion of this trauma and oppression. What does "oblong" sound like? I feel oblong. Feel oblong. Off-center. And I wonder how to translate that into a cohesive sound.
Ironically, it is never quiet in prison. I long for that moment when a solid snowstorm begins. The live weather maps show a raging of color, up drafts, tumultuous winds that should howl ….. outside, all things go still ….. quiet ….. silence, well-placed, screams as a whisper ….. I wish I had my bass.
Sometimes I think the overwhelming frustration would be best sounded by hitting my open strings hard—at full volume—before tuning my instrument and just letting that noise reverberate until it ends on its own accord.
Music is often a dance with tension and release, hard and soft, loud and quiet, fast and slow. Who leads might change, and moods of tonality may follow suit or in spite of the change. This exemplifies being a musician in prison with no instrument. A bard, muted while his muse fills him with stories he is incapable of telling. The police beat me so bad that several of my fingers are now crippled, so the thought occurs: Will I ever play again?
Ironically, only music could convey these sentiments properly—with the emotional turmoil they deserve. In a prison environment, where the professed goal is rehabilitating and correcting behaviors, you might think that music would be readily available, given its studied therapeutic benefits.
Playing an instrument is well-known to foster discipline and focus, promote peace and well-being of spirit, and provide creative and therapeutic outlets for every emotion under the sun. Plus, it's also fun. But the answer is resoundingly no.
There are other musicians here, incarcerated and held captive, longing for that release. Some younger. Some are the same age as me (I'm 47). One is now in his 70s.
"I live vicariously through music, remembering, imagining," said Lawrence Peter Medici, aka Pistol Pete.
"Even if only keeping the beat by pounding on my legs, I still play the drums." Medici has played the drums since he was 13 years old. He's 67 today, and is 25 years in on a life sentence.
"I started 'doing time' in prison in the early 1970s in New York, and there were no TVs and no music," said Medici. "My memories of songs broke the silence, and I have been able to keep a song in my heart."
Music is everywhere in prison today. That is to say, listening to music.
Most people have some sort of device that allows them to play music. In the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC), it is the JP6 personal device. This device from JPay looks like a Tom-Tom GPS from the early 2000s. With a seven-inch screen, it's too small to be a real tablet and too big and bulky to be a smartphone. It uses some kind of hacked Windows/Android mash up operating system. The JP6 is provided by Securus Technologies, one of the monopolies that handle the limited access we have to technology on the inside. Along with music, it has some low-quality games and basic e-mail options.
Rapper Deon Thomas, aka Young Tali, grew up listening to Biggie Smalls and dreaming of becoming a musician. Now, with the help of technology, he records his songs from behind bars.
JP6s also allow for a number of options that VDOC denies their captives, including movie rental, video calls, regular calls, and more. Given the evidence that many of these features promote a better, safer environment—as well as increase family contact, which is known to lower recidivism—no one can properly explain why the VDOC would choose to eliminate these options.
Of course, no one can properly explain why access to instruments is heavily restricted either. I've tried to ask, but the catch-all excuse for no instruments is security. "Security" is a euphemism in this state and nothing besides. To give you a reference and example of "security," VDOC tried to make women remove their tampons before having an in-person visit. No joke, it created a huge backlash and made national news.
"When a musician is given an opportunity to play his or her instrument of choice, they become one, and that instrument becomes a part to let what's bottled up inside come out," said Michael Epps, who plays guitar and recently picked up bass guitar by playing in the prison's Protestant Church Service. He's currently serving his eighth year of a 15-year-long sentence.
I agree with Epps. At no other time in my life have I felt totally free—as in a space of complete soulful peace—as when I am playing music. At no other time have I felt so close to other humans as when I'm creating music and moments of magic happen. Epps put it best.
"To a real musician, it's the only way out that they can truly connect with. The stated purpose of prison is to make me a better person. Let music be a tool to help with that."
Music programs for people who are incarcerated vary wildly state by state, and even institution by institution. California's Arts in Correction is a statewide program, but that doesn't mean that music is available to everyone incarcerated in the state. In fact, in 2010, the Arts in Correction program itself ran out of money, as state funding stopped completely. It went on to run off of volunteer labor or private funds.
In many other states, music programs are a case-by-case, and often run with the support of a group on the outside: Lee Correctional Institute in South Carolina had a few-music making workshops with instruments coming from the Carnegie Hall-affiliated collective, DECODA. In Richmond Justice Center in Virginia, Todd Thomas, a.k.a. Speech from Atlanta-based hip-hop group Arrested Development, helped create a small studio for people to record in. But whether or not you have a chance to make music is down to random chance and built off of private partnerships.
For most musicians on the inside, playing an instrument while incarcerated is made nearly impossible. In Virginia, there are roughly 50 prisons, and only rumors of about two or three of those prisons having musical instruments available. I've never talked to anyone who played inside, outside of a few restricted contexts.
Incarcerated musicians have crafted some of the most iconic songs in American history, but from convict leasing to JPay, Southern prisons have also been the sites of cultural and creative extraction, offering performers little in return.
At Pocahontas State Correctional Center, the only available instruments are at the Protestant Religious Service. They require anyone wishing to play to attend religious services for six months before they can audition. I imagine that to be rather insulting if, say, you are a bassist like myself with 31 years of experience.
Music has been around as long as humanity has had its own heartbeat. Prison has only existed a few thousand years at most—and as the atrocity of its current incarnation, a century. What would happen if they allowed us to create on our own terms, making up the soundtracks of our own lives?
And yet, as separated as I am from my muses and my tools of creating, in this very prison, another man found a way to write, record, produce and publish a hip-hop album.
I'm not much for being social in this environment, but a conversation about music is certain to draw me in. Two musicians, two artists telling their stories through the mediums available in the moment in an environment that is by design meant to destroy humanity and its spirit.
This is how Deon Thomas and I became engaged beyond the usual daily, mundane prison interactions. One of these conversations led to Deon explaining to me how he recorded an album over the phone.
There is a certain bittersweetness to the whole premise, because I am hamstrung in my own abilities to express myself through my music. No instruments, not even acoustic, are allowed. But it cannot be overstated how important it is that music is somehow and by any means being recorded and released from prison.
Prison is a hellscape, documented and proven to be destructive to human beings, while music is the universal language of freedom and goodness that all humans share. So every note of every song, every poem, every story that escapes the walls, fences, and overseers represents another crack in the concrete. It is another story of hope and another expression of a freedom that the oppressors can never take because it isn't physical. It cannot be caged.
So while I sit idle with crippled hands, pen and paper as my only instruments, I wonder about the fate of the music churning through my traumatized mind and heart. I take solace in the fact that a resistance does exist. Resistance is, after all, what we are talking about. Resistance, with an eye on the goal of abolition. Resistance, one person, one song, one album, at a time.