Musicians have incorporated prison life into their material throughout the 20th century. MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and folk-hero bluesman Lead Belly both famously spent time in jail, Johnny Cash recorded and released his live shows from Folsom and San Quentin prisons, and rappers like Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne have waxed poetic about their time on the inside … the list goes on. Rarely, though, do people from the outside go into prisons to play music. Jazz Artists of Charleston’s (JAC) new program, Jazz in the Joint, aims to do just that.
Organized by the JAC and band leader Steve Simon, Jazz in the Joint is a series that brings jazz shows to local prisons, starting with the Lieber Correctional Institute in Ridgeville, S.C. The first performance, which took place on Tues. Oct. 4, is part of the JAC’s community service and outreach program, and featured Simon on clarinet, Heather Rice on vocals, Charlton Singleton on trumpet, Brett Belanger on bass, Markus Helander on drums, Chris Williams on sax, and Mayor John Tecklenburg on the keys.
Simon says that jailhouse concerts are an important step in the process of prisoner rehabilitation. “You can make someone remember how beautiful life is on the outside,” he says. Simon should know, he’s on the board of directors for the Turning Leaf project, a Charleston organization dedicated to teaching methods of self-control to ex-convicts who are considered at risk of re-offending.
It can be difficult for former inmates to readjust to society. On a preliminary trip to Lieber Correctional Institute, Simon says that he noticed that many of the inmates appeared comfortable with and accustomed to their surroundings. That isn’t necessarily shocking: A 2014 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics states that between 2005 and 2010, roughly two-thirds (about 68 percent) of prisoners released in 30 states were arrested again within five years.
Simon would like to change that statistic. “Our country is about second chances,” says Simon. “We’ve all gotten second chances.”
Jazz in the Joint is an extension of the rehabilitation ethos that Simon and the Turning Leaf project practice. A handful of musically skilled inmates were selected, with help from the prison chaplain, to get on stage with the JAC; these prisoners even helped pick out some songs on the set list.
“It’s uplifting. It gives them the chance to see other inmates in a different light,” says Simon.
Thanks to Jazz Artists of Charleston, a program like Jazz in the Joint could become a common occurrence around the Lowcountry and the state. “We have follow-up meetings scheduled with Lieber Correctional Institute to plan future performances and we would also like to expand to the juvenile detention centers,” says JAC Executive Director Mary Beth Natarajan. To help this growth, the JAC is always looking for more musicians to volunteer for this and other outreach programs. “If a musician is inspired to share his or her talent in a context like this, then we welcome them to join the effort,” says Natarajan.
The aspirations of groups like the JAC and Turning Leaf Project are far more expansive than just one or two prison concerts, though. “It has everything to do with our criminal justice system needing reform,” says Simon.”When our society has become acclimated to accept this rush to judgement as the acceptable norm, something is terribly wrong. When locking up citizens has become a multi-billion dollar business, something is terribly wrong.”
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