By Hugh Chris Brown
The Pros and Cons Prison Music Program was initiated as a response to the closure of the agricultural programs in Canadian prisons, and from the outset was run with the intention of serving a population that was not only lacking in resources, but was also being actively marginalized.
My experiences have led me to understand many sensitivities of working with convicts, and the ways in which conflict and politicization can be avoided.
I have also learned that it is of great advantage to create tools for inmates. Your work can have a multiplier effect by means of open source learning, and the focusing of otherwise neglected energies of those behind bars. (Let me distinguish that last sentence from the use of inmates for capital gain, which is otherwise known as slavery) We are interested in humans building skill and a knowledge base that can help them be more self-determined, making choices of better service to themselves and their societies, inside and outside of institutions.
It is important to find a point person familiar with the institution you wish to work in. They can provide personal relationships which greatly cut down on bureaucracy. They can also guide you through the various rules, formal and implicit governing prison culture. Ultimately, you can save time and best direct your energies by being mentored.
My mentors in the first three institutions we initiated Pros and Cons were from a different sector in each case: The Chaplaincy, a Warden, and a Programs Officer respectively. After the program gained momentum, we were able to build a relationship with the Regional Deputy Commissioner’s Office which has proved invaluable. That office is now helping us build more remote relationships and plan on program expansion beyond our geography.
Begin gently and never judge the size of the group you work with. You will find participation can wax and wane, and your presence can be significant when you least expect it. I’ve had days where no one shows up, followed by filled auditoriums a year later, followed by days where no one shows up….. The important part is your own consistency. There are many contingencies in prison. Do something that is non-contingent and I guarantee you will affect the environment in a positive way
Maybe your project is about a singular event, or finite number of workshops. Can you imagine ways in which your energies might be replicated and grown by participants? In the case of the music program, recording allowed a means for the work to continue, regardless of the physical presence of a mentor. In fact, I observed knowledge grew exponentially when shared inmate to inmate, and I imagine this to be true in most pursuits. This will also provide platforms of relationship building and trust, beyond the technical specifics of your work. Always share your ideas, always encourage input and feedback. Let the participants take responsibility for the work and it will be protected and flourish.