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Music-Making in U.S. Prisons

Listening to Incarcerated Voices

By Mary L. Cohen & Stuart P. Duncan
Subjects Law, Music, Education
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Paperback : 9781771125710, 232 pages, November 2022
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781771123389, 232 pages, November 2022
Ebook (PDF) : 9781771124409, 232 pages, November 2022


Excerpt: Music-Making in U.S. Prisons, pp 156–57 Mary L. Cohen and Stuart P. Duncan

For community members with little or no personal experience with people in custody, musical performances introduce them to some of the human experiences of incarcerated populations and allow them to empathize with the performers. The interactions at these events can lead community members to reflect on their experiences and may challenge their preconceptions about incarcerated people. For community members who take an active role in challenging the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), musical performances and learning exchanges designed to combine musical performance with dialogue offer spaces for information sharing, listening, and conversation.

Not everything about musical performance in this context is free from challenges. Amanda Weber, founder and leader of the Voices of Hope Women’s Prison Choir in Minnesota, cautions that people could potentially leave a concert or a rehearsal inside a prison overconfident, believing that they know the ins and outs of prisons. If they think they are experts on this highly complex topic, they may contribute to further misconceptions in their conversations with others who have little or no awareness of prisons. Moreover, she warns that if outside volunteers’ internal change does not result in external actions, the people who primarily benefit will be the majority status group and there will be no efforts to dismantle the PIC (Weber 2018, 154–56). In her recognition of racial injustice in imprisonment in the US, Weber suggests that members of society, especially those participating in music-making in prisons, must “reflect on our own identity formation and our commitment to one another” (169) rather than feeling like they are “called to help.” Weber calls on us to recognize how our beliefs, our biases, and our lack of listening to and understanding the complex stories of people impacted by prisons can inadvertently perpetuate harmful systems. In addition to this, we need to commit to living in a way that acknowledges our common humanity and practise empathy, forgiveness, and compassion for ourselves and others.

Musical leaders in prisons require a variety of pedagogical tools to create mutually respectful relationships with and among all involved; they must also incorporate a culturally relevant and sustaining pedagogical framework. Other theoretical approaches such as restorative justice and peacebuilding practices emphasize a collaborative “with” approach in order to develop mutual trust, rather than a “sage on the stage” mentality (Cohen and Duncan 2015). Karin Hendricks illustrates how participants’ authentic voices and stories can be expressed more easily when healthy relationships between instructor and students have been established (Hendriks 2018). According to Hendricks, building trust has two central components: let the learners govern themselves; and support the learners to guide one another.

Given that incarcerated individuals have little autonomy, promoting rather than suppressing participant input can help group members feel empowered. However, some musical participants may find such autonomy uncomfortable in an ensemble setting, and others may not wish to provide input, so understanding the individual needs of each ensemble member, and guiding them toward developing their agency, is paramount. A musical leader must allow for a wide variety of levels of participation in the prison-based ensemble, affirming participants’ potential and inviting opportunities for shared leadership. It is necessary to critically consider which types of arts-based approaches support human dignity and social responsibility, and how to facilitate those approaches in a manner that builds a sense of personal and communal respect.

Table of contents

1: Why Music-Making in Prisons?
2: “Might Is Not Always Right”: Historical Reflections of Music-Making in U.S. Prisons
3: “In Encourage Everyone to Step Out of Their Comfort Zone”: Developing Agency in Instrumental Music Education in Prisons
4: “Their Singing Saved Me”: Social Awareness through Choral Singing
5: Dynamic Nature of Songwriting in Prisons: Interactions among Singers, Prison Staff, and Audience Members
6: “So Much More”: Pedagogies that Support Human Dignity and Social Responsibility for Musical Communities Working toward Abolition of the Prison Industrial Complex


The U.S. incarceration machine imprisons more people than in any other country. Music-Making in U.S. Prisons looks at the role music-making can play in achieving goals of accountability and healing that challenge the widespread assumption that prisons and punishment keep societies safe.

The book’s synthesis of historical research, contemporary practices, and pedagogies of music-making inside prisons reveals that, prior to the 1970s tough-on-crime era, choirs, instrumental ensembles, and radio shows bridged lives inside and outside prisons. Mass incarceration had a significant negative impact on music programs. Despite this setback, current programs testify to the potency of music education to support personal and social growth for people experiencing incarceration and deepen social awareness of the humanity found behind prison walls.

Cohen and Duncan argue that music-making creates opportunities to humanize the complexity of crime, sustain meaningful relationships between incarcerated individuals and their families, and build social awareness of the prison industrial complex. The authors combine scholarship and personal experience to guide music educators, music aficionados, and social activists to create restorative social practices through music-making.


Music-Making in U.S. Prisons is an important work that demonstrates the power of collaborative musical art-making within prisons with an illustrative collection of examples from many locations and across timespans. This book is grounded in humanity, both an incarcerated individual’s understanding of their own humanity, and society’s perception of it within incarcerated people. I believe it will spark the imagination of many practitioners and could encourage more dramatic change in the prison-industrial complex through the mechanisms described: connecting people inside to the community outside and reinforcing the humanity and dignity of everyone involved.”
—Robert Pollock, Prison Writing Program Manager, PEN America

“At just the right moment—as art is increasingly recognized as a potent weapon in the ongoing fight against mass incarceration—this thoughtful, artful, humanizing analysis of music’s role as an agent of healing and collective action is critical reading.” —Dr. Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World