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Leah Abramson

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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.

On her first steps mak­ing music in prisons

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. 

On the chal­lenges of get­ting music into prisons

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.

On the impor­tance of music in prisons

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.

For more info on Leah Abram­son, see their artist pro­file HERE
For a taste of what Leah Abram­son does, see the fol­low­ing projects fea­tured on the PCM Hub:
For more info on Music In Incar­cer­a­tion & Reha­bil­i­ta­tion, see HERE.
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