441 | Music to My Ears

June 26, 2016
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #441: Music to My Ears


Dear Family,

Much of the challenge of being at a new prison is figuring out how it all works, what is expected, what is allowed, what isn’t. It takes time to get into the flow of things, observe, ask, and try. The easy part is accepting all of the changes in environment, people, and programs. Years of gratefulness training as a child combined with years of no rights as a prisoner have conditioned me to joyfully adapt to the ebb and flow of life as I know it, a life that is seldom able to be lived “on my own terms.”

The difficult part is dealing with inmates who don’t have a mindset of improving and increasing programs for other inmates but are intent only on making a name for themselves or deriving some benefit from the program or perk or activity for their own good rather than the good of all. They often are so entrenched in their little area that they perceive any potential change as a threat. Many (well, most) who have a job have figured out every possible way to exploit that job, either through stealing, for example, or by having access to staff, privileges, equipment, or otherwise. Thus, they become so worried about losing their “hustle” or “come-up” that they, shall we say, strongly discourage anyone from proposing any changes that may affect them.

The other difficult part about being at a new facility is figuring out which staff members are most likely to encourage positive programs for inmates and which are more likely to think of every reason why such programs should not take place. Most frustrating of all is when the staff doesn’t know how to get such programs accomplished, doesn’t do even the minimum work required of them, or discourages inmates from even trying to initiate change.

As soon as I arrived, I asked (via the correct document) to meet with the assistant warden over programs. This was after I’d met with the chaplain, who told me that all program initiatives must be cleared by the assistant warden and the warden. Hearing nothing back from the assistant warden, I submitted another official request and waited another two weeks. After I observed yet another unofficial Moment of Silence for the death of my ideas, I drafted a proposal regarding initiating a Music Program here and sent it to friends of mine to type and format for me. Once returned, I placed it in a manila envelope addressed to the head warden and waited for a response. When she (the head warden, Ms. Wilson) got back from vacation, I happened to see her in the hallway. She asked me if I’d completed the proposal I’d told her about when she visited my dorm six weeks earlier. “Yes,” I told her, and asked if she’d received it.

“Why, no,” she exclaimed, “but I’ll look for it.” 

Later that day as I explained my frustration to a guy in my dorm who helps with producing music for graduations, he said, “Oh, your Music Program proposal? The Assistant Warden, who was filling in for Ms. Wilson, gave it to those of us who are in the existing ‘Music Program,’ but we don’t need that. We already have one.” (Note: The above passage takes great liberty with recalling what the man actually said, since he uses quite a bit of foul language and urban slang.)

Never mind the shocking fact that inmates saw mail meant for the warden before she did. I wasn’t happy that they could arbitrarily decide not to move ahead with proposing my ideas on how to expand the Music Program at no additional cost to the operating budget. Maybe it was because the current so-called “Music Program” has no times during which they intend to actually teach someone how to read music or play an instrument or sing. Instead, a close-knit group of guys who write and perform rap music monopolize the existing equipment and all practice times. Until recently.

Just this week, I was invited by the warden to join a select group of inmates who would be creating music for a special community luncheon she was going to host. We got together in the Visiting Room twice for two hours, tasked with trying to practice and perfect a few songs. The warden had requested a Michael Jackson song, so I was told to get on the keyboard to see what I could do. I’d not only never heard the song before but never heard of the song before, so I asked if someone could sing it while I followed along. Instead, they played a recording of some lady singing it (who turned out to be Michael Jackson, I was told with scorn on their faces). After I killed the song (which, in today’s vernacular means I played WAY beyond everyone’s expectations), one of the other musicians, an electric guitarist, said we didn’t have enough practice time, so he’d rather play a different song. Everyone caved to his demands, and not surprisingly, the song he chose had an electric guitar lead with no vocals and a five-minute solo. Me? I played an organ part with three chords. The. Entire. Song.

The luncheon was deemed a success by all. Several important members of the community, other nearby prisons, and even the chief of police for some local tiny farm town showed up and enjoyed our music selections, clapping and smiling. Later in the week, I played piano for a GED graduation, which really put me on the radar of the staff. I had a chance to speak with the wardens about piano teaching, choir, and guitar classes, and it looks as if I have the go-ahead to schedule those activities. Besides that, the warden has asked for a proposal from me where I would co-lead the Music Program with the very inmate who’d seen my earlier proposal. Now, we’re working together to see some programs expanded (my goals) and yet keep the cool people involved (his goals). I’m just grateful that my skill can help open doors of opportunity for others, and I’m excited to see where this all leads!