Getting started in correctional institutions

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.

Beginning work inside a prison

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

Activating Legacy Potential

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.