Prison in America

In the ‘prison capital of Canada,’ a group of musicians recorded an album from behind bars

The chapel at Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ontario, is dominated by three rose-colored stained glass windows, salvaged from a nearby prison during a 1970s riot. The small room, with seating for 40 to 50 people, has long been a site of spiritual peace, but in the past few years became a haven for a group of men trying to prove to themselves that they could be more than what they’d done.

Llyod Ingraham was among them when he was placed in the minimum security facility at Joyceville in 2011. After being convicted of second-degree murder in 2004, he had been to maximum and medium security prisons that punished using solitary confinement; in comparison, Joyceville offered more freedoms. It also gave him access to the chapel and its most momentous offering: music.

He enrolled in Pros and Cons, a grassroots music-making initiative that gives inmates the tools, instruments and confidence to showcase their talent. With it, Ingraham says he began the process of undoing the damage wrought by the isolation of other facilities and developing skills that would eventually help him reintegrate into life on the outside.

“After you’re in for a long time, you lose a sense of who you are and your place in society, or whether you have a place in society at all,” he said. “And that’s where Pros and Cons brings us out, and tells us yes, we have something we can contribute, we still have worth. That’s something we can lose sight of inside real quick.”

At a time when Canada grapples with prisons becoming more violent, with increased rates of assault, sexual assault, attempted suicide and the use of solitary confinement, the David Rockefeller Fund has singled out Pros and Cons for funding.

The fund, an arm of the massive Rockefeller family philanthropy operation, has vowed to continue to fund Pros and Cons with $50,000 for the next two years.

David Rockefeller Fund Board Chair Michael Quattrone said he saw potential in the program’s capacity to “promote conversation … within prisons but also among the communities touched by the criminal justice system, including those on the outside.”

The first album offered a “postcard as a traveling missive from behind a wall,” symbolic outreach from a historically isolated community, Quattrone said.

The idea for Pros and Cons came to founder Hugh Christopher Brown, a local musician, while he was protesting the government’s decision to shutter the countrywide prison farm program, which had been a staple for Canadian correctional facilities for 200 years. Inmates had fed cattle that grazed the land surrounding prisons, farmed the crops, and milked the cows for their own stock. But in 2008, the federal Correctional Service of Canada, responsible for rehabilitation, had made the decision to cut it, citing high costs.

Despite an organized Save Our Prison Farms fight in response to the government decision, farms at Joyceville and around the country were shut down in 2011. Brown was one of the protesters blocking the trucks that were carting the cattle off the prison grounds.

“It was that day, watching my neighbors getting arrested for protesting an initiative that was being rescinded by the government that had overwhelming public support, that I knew we had to do something,” he said.

Brown lives across the water from Kingston, called the “prison capital of Canada” by locals for its unusually high density of correctional facilities, on Wolfe Island, a small strip of land between the U.S. and mainland Canada.

He decided to volunteer to teach music to inmates at Joyceville, then called Pittsburgh Institution, where his friend, Kate Johnson, served as the chaplain.

“The first time I went in there I was terrified. I’d never been in a prison before,” he said, but when he met Ingraham, “The bond was immediate.”

Brown kept coming back — first to record music with the choir, and later, to help a group of about 10 inmates write and produce their own music.

What would become Pros and Cons grew organically from there.

“Every week I’d come back and it was more and more and more. We kept refining the music as we went,” he said.

The visits became more frequent and involved. As Johnson remembers it, there were several moments when, after Brown returned with a new mix, “You’d see them listening to something that they knew they had nailed. Add to that feeling the weight of, ‘We’re society’s cast offs.’ To have those moments of success…was always so amazing.”

During the same period, the Pros and Cons group at Joyceville produced and recorded a full-fledged album, a warm blend of folk and country called Postcards from the County.

Brown started to realize that the program could work in other prisons in Ontario and potentially across the country. With the help of other volunteer musicians, the program spread to a regional women’s prison earlier this year, and is currently getting started at two more area prisons, one of which is a maximum security facility.

Adam Harris, who was one of the project’s most active members while he was incarcerated, said that when he thinks of Pros and Cons he thinks of the chapel. It’s where Brown first met the inmates and where Ingraham found his inspiration.

When Brown would meet him there, always with a laptop, microphones, speakers, and whatever additional instruments were needed that day, they would convert the chapel to a makeshift recording studio. But the real creative work happened outside the biweekly space, when the men would collaborate on lyrics and music.

“You’ve got all these guys inside, and a lot of the time they are by themselves. It’s really hard to make friends with people inside. You become very solitary,” Ingraham said. “To see all these guys work together, and cooperate, and have a vision we could share, which is really unusual in a prison atmosphere, is a marvelous thing.”

The album is available online, where the inmates also listed a trio of charities for listeners interested in contributing — none of the money is recirculated back into the program.

“The concept was, musicians volunteer their time. It’s nice that some funding did come out of our charity album, but it was never one of our goals,” Harris said. “Our goal was just to put out our music and show that some positive can come out of prison.”

Among the charity recipients is the local food bank, which for years received produce from the farm program.

I wish I could take back things that I said.
All the pain I’ve caused
I know my words don’t carry much weight
Cause all the lies I’ve told
I don’t want to let you down again
So I won’t make any promises
Say a prayer for me, and I’ll say one for you
Hopefully we’ll meet again

From “Christian Highway,” written by Adam Harris, performed by Lloyd Ingraham

In early 2016, Ingraham, who speaks in measured breaths, was released from Joyceville on parole. Since then, he has started reintegrating into a world he left 11 years earlier.

He found a job as a cook. He rents his own apartment. He even reconnected with his kids after they read about Postcards from the County online.

“It makes reintegration so much easier if you have that community interaction prior,” Ingraham said of his transition to parole. “I have seen both sides of it. I have seen many people who have had that interaction through different programs. They’ve been able to succeed, because they have that support and they have that self confidence. I have also seen people who have not had it, and have returned to institutions and have not been so successful.”

Harris, 42, said Pros and Cons helped with his transition out of prison, too.

Harris, who was 15 and an avid guitar player when he was convicted, said the program helped him maintain the skill.

“It’s a different world out here, but I’m still actively involved and recording music,” he said. “I’ve lost contact with some of the other guys, but [Pros and Cons] gave me the confidence and drive to continue writing, to continue putting out music, to use it as an emotional tool as I encounter daily life.”

Harris recently became involved with his local church, where he accompanies the choir. He also writes music of his own.

In the U.S. and Canada alike, prison arts programs can run into a dead end: what difference can a single program make for a person who might be incarcerated for years or for life?

Dr. Mary Cohen, an associate Professor of Music Education at the University of Iowa, has studied prison choirs for 15 years. Since 2009, she has conducted the Oakdale Community Choir at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, a medium security facility. At its inception, the choir had 22 outside singers — members not in prison — and 22 inside singers. The group has since nearly doubled in size.

Music, compared to other forms of expression, is particularly therapeutic, she said. “When we sing, it’s our voice, our body, that’s the instrument. When we’re in a group of people, we have a communal body.”

Much of the music her choir performs is original. Some of the songs mock the grim realities of life in prison, including “Don’t Go To The Hole This Christmas,” about staying out of solitary confinement.

Cohen initially envisioned the choir as a restorative outlet for inmates, including those serving life sentences. What’s surprised her most, she said, is the positive response from community members who attend their concerts.

“I think one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is people who come into the prison, either to sing or watch a rehearsal. Their stereotype of what it means to be a prisoner is transformed,” she said.

Early concerts were allowed a maximum of 80 people. At the last concert, in May, 229 community members came to watch.

“The prison actually has to rent chairs for the audience to sit on,” she said.

Experts who study incarceration say that prison arts programs can be helpful for inmates, but only represent half-steps toward prison reform. At worst, Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations, writes, they are “crumbs tossed at a system starved for radical overhaul.”

A bigger move toward prison reform, Dreisinger wrote, would involve envisioning an alternative to current systems of punishment.

“Art can be an obstacle to such imaginings because of the very thing it does so well: dazzle us, and then distract us, with beauty,” she wrote.

Aware of the limitations of prison arts programs, Brown said Pros and Cons is his attempt at “dealing in the present tense,” how he addresses some of the problems affecting his local prisons now in the hopes of empowering people to lead movements for reform in the future.

“By humanizing the incarcerated, and giving them actual tools to heal themselves, we can sow the seeds for the ultimate evolution of incarceration,” he said.

Or as Quattrone, of the Rockefeller Fund, put it: “Those closest to the problem are also closest to the solution.”