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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

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.


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

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