‘A lot of bang for your buck’ with jail-based arts programs
On Mondays, Eddie takes a macroeconomics class at 9:00 a.m. Then at 1:00 p.m., he takes a course on statistics and probability. Eddie also studies French, and exercises daily.
Eddie has been living in the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, Massachusetts, since before the pandemic. His sentence is up in about two years, For privacy reasons, he asked that we not use his last name.
A large part of his day is spent in a shared cell with a bunk bed, desk, toilet and sink. Many of the courses he takes are virtual, and being allowed to use a tablet in this jail is not automatic. It’s an earned privilege.
Once a week, in person, Eddie takes guitar lessons.
“It gives me something to do,” he said. “And on top of that, music is something that helps a person. They say it enhances our mental capacity and ability.”
Eddie is part of an intermediate group lesson and in the past few weeks has focused on the minor pentatonic scales. James — who also asked to keep his identity private — is using a Fender guitar someone donated to the program.
“I had been dabbling with a guitar for like probably three years, but it wasn’t structured,” James said.
That was before getting arrested. James has been at the Franklin County Jail for a year and a half, awaiting sentencing. Playing guitar, he said, helps him keep his mind off things.
At the Franklin County Jail in Greenfield, Massachusetts, musician Michael Nix teaches several guitar classes a week. Among the students who are incarcerated are Eddie and James, who asked not to have their last names published for reasons of privacy. (Nirvani Williams / NEPM)
“I think definitely understanding myself and playing guitar go hand in hand,” James said.
He wouldn’t talk about why he was arrested. Neither would Eddie.
It’s a topic their guitar teacher Michael Nix, a professional musician, never asks about.
“It’s a personal thing they can share with me if they want,” Nix said, “but I really don’t care.”
What Nix does care about, like any music teacher, is that his students practice and learn. But given the setting, Nix said, it’s more than that.
“What I care about is forming positive relationships, where as a mentor I can ask people to operate at the same kind of high level that I ask myself to operate at [as a musician],” Nix said.
Nix started teaching guitar at the Franklin County Jail in the months before the pandemic shut down in-person activities. Now he meets with about a dozen students — some are long-term, he said, and some he sees once and they don’t return. He doesn’t always find out why.
To be able to stay in the unit, James said you have to step up, volunteer and go to regular community meetings.
“We’re held to a higher standard,” he said. ”We gotta do well.”
Even with incentives like more free time or extra Netflix, James said not everyone takes advantage of the different courses — or the therapy.
Rehabilitation not punishment Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan said the crimes that bring people to his jail come out of childhood trauma and mental health issues. In the last decade, the opioid epidemic has pushed law enforcement to look at what it means to jail someone with addiction.
“The science tells us that addiction is a disease,” Donelan said. “And we’re failing ourselves if we think that we can just contain men and women with substance abuse issues in a jail, and then release them and think that anything’s going to change or improve.”
Not everyone in the U.S. corrections system agrees that men and women convicted of a crime should be able to participate in music lessons or art classes, but Donelan said he thinks most victims of crime are satisfied with the fact that the perpetrator is behind bars.
“The bottom line is, as I tell [employees], it’s not our job to punish. That’s the judge’s job,” Donelan said. “The judge sends them to us. Our job is to correct behavior and offer opportunities for a better life of not committing crimes.”
Researchers have found a correlation between making art in U.S. jails and prisons and social skill development and improved mental health. For people who are incarcerated, corrections officials say that translates to learning how to work out the kinks in social settings — with family and employers, and to longevity in the workplace or staying with their therapy or drug treatment.
This progressive approach is used at county jails around Massachusetts, Donelan said. Data from Franklin County, he said, show some promising results.
“There was a 27% reduction in recidivism over a three-year cohort from 2015 to 2018,” Donelan said, looking at the jail’s first cohort in its cognitive behavioral therapy program.
‘Changing lives, one guitar at a time’
“Corrections professionals realize that there’s a lot of bang for your buck with these programs,” said Wayne Kramer, the founder of the proto-punk band MC5.
“If they don’t do something to help people change for the better, the prison experience itself will change them for the worse,” Kramer said.
Kramer speaks from experience. He was arrested in 1975 for selling cocaine to an undercover federal agent. While he was incarcerated in Kentucky, The Clash wrote a song about Kramer and a few other musicians in their B-side single “Jail Guitar Doors.” Kramer is mentioned in the first verse.
“Let me tell you ’bout Wayne and his deals of cocaine A little more every day Holding for a friend till the band do well Then the D.E.A. locked him away…”
Twenty or so years after Kramer was released, he and British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg used the song title for starting two organizations — one in the U.S. and one in the U.K., — that get musical instruments into the hands of incarcerated men and women.
“What they learn right away is how to collaborate with someone that they might not normally hang out with,” Kramer said. “They might not be from their neighborhood or might not have the same skin color [or] they might speak Spanish.”
What inevitably happens, Kramer said, is they find out they have much more in common than different. He’s witnessed remarkable connections made between incarcerated men from from rival gangs, Kramer said, because they’re playing and writing music together.
“I’ve had guys tell me, ‘Wayne, you know that dude? I never liked him. I’d see him on the yard. I don’t like him. But, you know, we worked on that song together and he’s all right,’” Kramer said.
‘They all end up sleeping’
At the Franklin County Jail, Eddie and others are allowed to keep their guitars with him, even after class.
He’s been battling depression for years, he said, and playing helps him. There’s one song he recently learned that soothes him.
“Like, I close my eyes, I’m out in the zone somewhere and it just relaxes me almost as a mother, singing to a child,” Eddie said.
The song is a lullaby written by Sting, but Eddie first heard it at the end of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2.”
Deep in the meadow, under the willow A bed of grass, a soft green pillow Lay down your head, and close your sleepy eyes And when again they open, the sun will rise.
Here it’s safe, here it’s warm Here the daisies guard you from every harm Here your dreams are sweet and tomorrow brings them true Here is the place where I love you.
Eddie plays it over and over, he said. He’s good enough that no one asks him to stop. It may even be soothing to others who hear him.
“The last two or three cell mates that I had, basically I play guitar while they’re in there,” Eddie said. “And because they’re in there, I usually kind of play soft. And strangely, they all end up sleeping where I’m playing.”
Nix, the guitar teacher, said when people make music together, it’s one of the most healthy social interactions. And being able to learn a piece, he said, is a big self-esteem boost — something that could help them live a better life, once they’re out of jail.