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Hugh Chris Brown — On Making Music in Prisons


As part of the Music in Incar­cer­a­tion & Reha­bil­i­ta­tion Resource, Hugh Chris Brown describes his expe­ri­ence in mak­ing music in his pro­gram Pros & Cons and it’s ori­gins, the effi­ca­cy of music in pris­ons, what mak­ing music brought him and the inmates, and self-care prac­tices he uses to sus­tain him­self in this work.

On his first steps estab­lish­ing the prison arts pro­gram Pros & Cons

Hi, my name is Hugh Christo­pher Brown. I iden­ti­fy as he/him, always open to sug­ges­tions for improve­ment. My expe­ri­ence with incar­cer­a­tion and rehab has stemmed sole­ly from a music pro­gram that I devel­oped called the “Pros and Cons” music program. 

Ini­tial­ly, it was a response to the clos­ing of the agri­cul­tur­al pro­grams in pris­ons, a very high­ly suc­cess­ful pro­gram that was being shut down. As a musi­cian, I just thought “Oh I’ll get inside and do what I know how to do and do some­thing pos­i­tive in there”. Because I did­n’t feel that a ben­e­fit for incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple or offend­ers was actu­al­ly going to work, I real­ized at that time that we were deal­ing with a vul­ner­a­ble pop­u­la­tion. They were vul­ner­a­ble because they had per­pe­trat­ed harm to oth­ers, which is a hard thing for peo­ple to get their heads around. Over the course of the last 10 years, it’s grown to mul­ti­ple insti­tu­tions. It’s now a nation­al char­i­ty and it’s gone from song­writ­ing work­shops to build­ing record­ing stu­dios in pris­ons and releas­ing the record­ings that are made by the inmates that are then linked to char­i­ta­ble pur­suits of the per­pe­tra­tor’s choice. So it’s a mod­el of restora­tive jus­tice and a way of har­ness­ing peo­ple’s time inside of sen­tences in a fruit­ful way. 

My first steps to get­ting inside were through build­ing rela­tion­ships, in my case, with Kate John­son who was a prison chap­lain and made those first work­shops pos­si­ble. Fol­low­ing that, it was about build­ing rela­tion­ships with inmates them­selves ask­ing them what was work­ing, get­ting their advice. I always thought I would build a pro­gram and then give it to Cor­rec­tions but both inmates and Cor­rec­tions offi­cials them­selves said no. This is work­ing because it’s inde­pen­dent and peo­ple are com­ing in of their own volition. 

Fur­ther rela­tion­ships start­ed being built with pro­gram­ming offi­cers and the local Region­al Deputy com­mis­sion­er’s office, which was invalu­able. To this day, I would say com­mu­ni­ca­tion and rela­tion­ships are pri­ma­ry. I’ve also been men­tored by peo­ple who’ve done work in pris­ons for years and in dif­fer­ent aspects, every­thone from cor­rec­tion­al offi­cers to peo­ple com­ing run­ning well­ness and health activities.

There’s a lot to learn and a lot of peo­ple have already done those basic steps, so learn from them.

On the effi­ca­cy of music in prisons

Okay, I’m just going to speak a lit­tle bit now on the effi­ca­cy and pur­pose of music, and, I would say, the arts in gen­er­al in incar­cer­at­ed populations. 

One of the things that’s very dif­fi­cult is the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with crim­i­nal­i­ty, both as a stig­ma­tiz­ing fac­tor, and then as a means of self-defense inside. What I have noticed is folks com­ing into groups, either record­ing or singing, will be ret­i­cent to share. To lit­er­al­ly open their mouths. Then all of a sud­den you’re par­tic­i­pat­ing in music and it’s attrac­tive. And music is a tem­po­ral art. You have no oth­er alter­na­tive but to be present, and that present tense as painful as it is, music and art is an emo­tion­al plat­form which can help ease that chal­lenge. I have seen it mul­ti­ple times where folks go from being total­ly reclu­sive to com­plete­ly enthu­si­as­tic, because once they’ve crossed that thresh­old, they want to share that expe­ri­ence with others. 

It’s also giv­ing peo­ple the reins to their own lives. Music is some­thing that they can work on pri­vate­ly. It’s not ordained or judged by oth­ers pri­mar­i­ly, although they will ask me quite often. They just want me to treat them like any oth­er pro­fes­sion­al musi­cian, which I do. The pur­pose of this project keeps chang­ing and expand­ing. At first, it was a response to the can­cel­la­tion not only of the Agri­cul­tur­al pro­grams, but the mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the chap­lain­cy and the can­cel­la­tion, in some cas­es, of the culi­nary programs.

And so, it was fill­ing a void. Now, what it’s doing a decade in, is employ­ing peo­ple on the out­side, both in music, engi­neer­ing, spe­cif­ic tasks, but also some­times in com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing. I’m bring­ing inmates back inside to work with cur­rent­ly incar­cer­at­ed peo­ple because that incar­cer­a­tion at that moment goes from being a lia­bil­i­ty to an asset. So I, as a musi­cian, can do a lot of work when I bring in some­one who’s been inside. Mere­ly by their pres­ence, they’re doing work that I can’t nec­es­sar­i­ly do. So the pur­pose has expand­ed as a way of glean­ing an employ­able aspect out of the expe­ri­ence of incar­cer­a­tion. Hope­ful­ly that expands for us as the pro­gram expands, now that we’re a nation­al char­i­ty. That’s one of the aspects that the music might serve some­one when they get out of prison in terms of re-inte­gra­tion. The oth­er way that it def­i­nite­ly serves is just in social­iz­ing peo­ple while they’re inside.

On prison cul­ture, and issues expe­ri­enced by inmates inside and out­side pris­ons 

The oth­er way that it def­i­nite­ly serves is just in social­iz­ing peo­ple while they’re inside. Incar­cer­at­ed pop­u­la­tions can be very iso­lat­ed, very encamped, and the music just nat­u­ral­ly becomes ecu­meni­cal. It becomes shared across dif­fer­ent cul­tures. We’ve had an expe­ri­ence where in one case, a white inmate was mak­ing music with rap­pers and he was say­ing, “If my fam­i­ly knew I was in the room with black peo­ple they would dis­own me”. As you know, not a shock­ing state­ment, and also some­thing that then led to weeks of con­ver­sa­tion, and I would think would affect that per­son­’s atti­tude when they’re on the outside. 

By tak­ing care of music togeth­er and by cre­at­ing a prop­er form of inter­de­pen­dence, I think we wit­ness what oth­er peo­ple are use­ful for. We build trust and we real­ize that a lot is pos­si­ble when we have that trust. And that trust that has often been denied to folks who end up in prison long before their incar­cer­a­tion. Some of the cul­tur­al sen­si­tiv­i­ties I’d say that we have to rec­og­nize are from the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. I’ll start with the stigma­ti­za­tion of incar­cer­a­tion and scape­goat­ing there­by, because it’s easy to pick on some­one who’s already been fin­gered for doing harm and then trig­ger­ing peo­ple who are trau­ma­tized. If they meet some­one who’s a per­pe­tra­tor of a crime that they’ve suf­fered very often, it’s going to be trig­ger­ing for them.

So these are chal­lenges that we’re meet­ing in our pro­gram as folks grad­u­ate, and as we inte­grate them. The dif­fer­ent ways of address­ing this, I would say, imme­di­ate­ly stem from com­mu­ni­ca­tions and then just fol­low­ing the legal codes as they are. You know, it’s called Cor­rec­tions. It’s not called ‘draw and quar­ter in the pub­lic square and throw peo­ple away’. We work under the ten­ant that every­one is respon­si­ble and no one is dis­pos­able. Some peo­ple can’t hang with that and you don’t want to push but­tons. How­ev­er, expos­ing those kind of prej­u­dices is what we need to do as a civ­il soci­ety if we’re going to advance. And we have gone from draw­ing and quar­ter­ing peo­ple in the pub­lic square to incar­cer­a­tion. Hope­ful­ly we can get a lit­tle more per­fect constantly.

The oth­er cul­tur­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty, of course on the part of incar­cer­at­ed folks, is imposter syn­drome. When peo­ple start tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for them­selves, it’s scary. I mean you’ve been depend­ing on an insti­tu­tion almost the way we are when we’re in school, and so how that is met is by actu­al­ly being vul­ner­a­ble your­self. 

I, as an artist, have to relate all the time. “Oh yeah I was scared shit­less that time on stage”, or this is what I learned from this per­son, or when I bring in peo­ple to do work­shops and an incar­cer­at­ed per­son will say to me, “Wow I learned a lot that day” … I learned a lot that day! So reg­u­lat­ing and putting your­self on the same lev­el as peo­ple real­ly helps to address that state of imposter syn­drome which can be debilitating.

It can be debil­i­tat­ing for all of us, let alone peo­ple who have served time.

On anonymi­ty, and the ethics of con­tent creation

In terms of the ethics around con­tent cre­ation and what hap­pens to it, I can speak specif­i­cal­ly to our mod­el, which is anonymi­ty in release of the music. So what that does well is it pro­tects the per­pe­tra­tor. It also pro­tects vic­tims who could be trau­ma­tized if they saw some­one’s name tied to a piece of work which might have been very earnest­ly made, but still it would­n’t mat­ter to them. So anonymi­ty, it pro­tects both sides from being tar­get­ed and at the same time you give cre­ative con­trol and own­er­ship to the creator.

So we work on pub­lish­ing, on teach­ing peo­ple how to real­ly reg­u­late and con­trol their own con­tent. They can always do ver­sions when they’re on the out­side. The stuff that they make for the pro­gram is put out free of charge, tied to char­i­ta­ble works. So it’s a way of har­ness­ing the time that peo­ple are spend­ing inside in a very pro­duc­tive way. Using that time to ben­e­fit oth­ers, and keep­ing it clear of the com­mer­cial­iza­tion, and any oth­er thing that might kind of hot­ly become under criticism.

On what mak­ing music in pris­ons brings to him and to inmates

I guess the oth­er thing to talk about is so you know why I’m doing this. I saw the agri­cul­tur­al pro­grams being destroyed that had a 0.1 % recidi­vism rate, mean­ing no one who went through those pro­grams were reof­fend­ing. And I start­ed to under­stand the rea­sons why were because they were look­ing to load pris­ons, and break some­thing, and ratio­nal­ize pri­va­ti­za­tion. It just seemed so cyn­i­cal and dark to me that I just need­ed to become engaged and involved. Music is one of my prin­ci­pal engage­ments with the world, so that’s what I had to offer. I think very quick­ly it became evi­dent to me how impor­tant music is, when I saw it cre­ate so much ener­gy. And there’s lots of sto­ries of peo­ple being reunit­ed with their fam­i­lies through this work, and a grow­ing con­cern for each oth­er in incar­cer­at­ed states. 

Peo­ple have been say­ing to me when they’re about to go and get parole, “Oh I don’t want to leave until this pro­jec­t’s fin­ished” or “Are you going to stay here because this was very impor­tant to my friend who’s still involved here.” And just that notion that they’re think­ing in a out­side method to me is a por­tion of free­dom that this work is afford­ing the indi­vid­ual by their own work. And what I con­sid­er suc­cess is when I see that. There’s two or three peo­ple who have been with this pro­gram a long time that at the end of the day, if it was only about those three peo­ple, the decade of work has been worth it. It’s esti­mat­ed that over a thou­sand have gone through our pro­gram. We’re look­ing to expand and nation­al­ize currently.

That will be great. The suc­cess is real­ly, real­ly per­son­al and very indi­vid­ual, and the amount that I’ve learned doing this has deep­ened and reignit­ed my rela­tion­ship to music and myself.

On self-care and dis­cern­ing your role when work­ing in pris­ons 

All of this work is deeply emo­tion­al. We’re very keen into the expe­ri­ence of oth­ers, so it takes a great deal of self-care. Some of the things that I prac­tice are meditation.

I per­son­al­ly sit an hour a day. I find that’s very, very help­ful for me to dis­cern what my role is with oth­ers. When you’re fac­ing folks who have had a rough go, the seduc­tion is the feel­ing that you can fix. That’s not real­ly what we’re here for. We’re just here to abide and present anoth­er option, and art can help make that attrac­tive. And if you can get out of that ego men­tal­i­ty that you’re fix­ing or help­ing, again, putting your­self on the same lev­el as every­one else, that’s good self-care. It’s kind of let­ting your­self off the hook of respon­si­bil­i­ty that way, and I’d say again, mak­ing your­self vul­ner­a­ble. It’s healthy. It can be scary but it’s the only way I know how to do it. And 10 years in, I’ve had expe­ri­ences where I’ve done ther­a­peu­tic work, plant med­i­cines, well­ness work, the prison work nev­er comes up with­in that con­text as some­thing that is tax­ing me. Quite the oppo­site, it actu­al­ly is giv­ing to me.

It might not be what you’d expect, but when you’re in a place where every moment of atten­tion is appre­ci­at­ed, it is very, very, very pos­i­tive and you just have to divorce your­self from that ego side — of the cor­rec­tor or fixer. 

You’re not that, you’re just a friend really.


For more info on Hugh Chris Brown, see their artist pro­file HERE. For a taste of what Hugh Chris Brown does, see the fol­low­ing projects fea­tured on the PCM Hub:

Pros & Cons

Get­ting Start­ed in Cor­rec­tion­al Institutions

For more info on Music In Incar­cer­a­tion & Reha­bil­i­ta­tion, see HERE

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