- Rock band instruments
Leah Abramson — On Making Music In Prisons
As part of the Music in Incarceration & Rehabilitation Resource, Leah Abramson describes her experiences making music in a women’s prison in the project Women Rock, the challenges she encountered, and what making music brought her and the inmates.
Hi, my name is Leah Abramson. My pronouns are she and her. I’m a musician, composer, and instructor based in Vancouver, BC — on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tseil-Waututh Nations.
I began working with incarcerated women in 2008. I started as a volunteer teaching music lessons and, after a few years of volunteering where I could, I started a program called Women Rock, which was loosely based on the Portland Girls Rock Camp model to teach rock band instruments, then songwriting and then help them to form a band. Those programs ended around 2016.
So initially to get started, I looked up the Elizabeth Fry Organization to find out how to become a volunteer, and they sort of put me in the right direction. But I didn’t join them or anything like that . Then, I also had to contact the prison itself and the social programs officer there to see what needed to happen, in order for me to come in and bring instruments there, and to talk specifics about who might want to learn, who might want to be a student there.
So I went through volunteer training, just general volunteer training for the prison which was a few sessions, then organized it with the social programs officer. I kind of did it myself but, in order to find those contacts, Elizabeth Fry was helpful.
It was actually harder than I thought to go in and provide a free service.
There’s a little bit of skepticism on the prison’s part — why would you want to come in and do this, and why do you really need to bring in all these instruments? I suppose there is the most skepticism around the Rock Band program because rock band, in general, is not seen as a rehabilitative sort of music or rehabilitative sort of activity. It’s often viewed as rock and roll, deviant, sex, drugs, etc., which was definitely not our program. In fact, meeting people where they are in terms of the music can be quite rehabilitative, in terms of learning an instrument and getting good at something from week to week.
But we had to provide a lot of information, demonstrating what had been done in the past in different places, in order to convince the prison authorities. I guess that it was a worthwhile activity. Also bringing instruments in, everything needs to be scanned, everything needs to be provided as a list beforehand. So you need to know exactly what you’re taking in. So it’s a challenge. Just on a real organizational level. Often also, the prison is quite far away from Vancouver so it’s quite a drive. So there’s a commute of about an hour and a half each way in traffic depending on the timing. Then there’s funding which is a whole other thing.
So for Rock Band for Women Rock I was able to partner with an organization called Instruments Of Change which fundraises every year for things like this. So, at the time, we were able to pay ourselves that way. But when I was initially just volunteering, that was just volunteering. So finding funding for these things can be really difficult as well. Again, because there’s this idea that music is sort of an unnecessary thing or it’s just not necessarily as important as education or other things that people might learn. There’s a view that it’s sort of icing on the cake that people don’t need, which is definitely not my point of view. But I think there’s the perception that it’s not something that people should get. It’s almost like there’s this punitive idea that people should be suffering for what they did, instead of rehabilitating and looking at their lives that way.
So those are some of the things that were a barrier.
It’s an experience I think of fondly. It had its challenges for sure. It’s not an easy place to go to every week. It’s definitely something that you digest throughout the week that you think about a lot in your day-to-day afterwards. You’re meeting lots of people from different walks of life, who have potentially had a very different life from you. Also, there are similarities where you think, “oh if my life had gone slightly differently that could have been me. I could be learning music here instead of this person”. So it makes you think a lot about your life and circumstances, and upbringing and privileges in the world, and things like that.
But it was also very meaningful giving people the opportunity to learn music, which is something that I can’t imagine my life without. I think it is just so meaningful for people in their lives and it’s a skill that they can take with them on the outside as well. I know that some people have and it continues to enrich their lives, just giving people those musical skills to carry on.
I hope that there’s a way to create more opportunities for this, in a way that’s perhaps even national. A way for people to understand how important it is to have arts programming in incarcerated settings. And I hope to find a way to centralize so that people can more easily find their way inside to provide things like this.
There is one part of the program that I did where we actually did recordings, and a number of women were starting to write songs and we actually worked with them to make recordings that they could send to their families. And a number of women sent songs to their children. That was one of the most meaningful things, and I think it was a real way for them to express themselves and also connect with their families when they weren’t otherwise able to. Sometimes their families lived far away and it was a really meaningful experience for them to communicate in that way.