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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
For more info on Music In Incarceration & Rehabilitation, see HERERead More +