Iowa City-based writer Andy Douglas’s new book, “Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir”, was released on April 1, 2019. For six years, the author volunteered with the Oakdale Community Choir, a performing chorale composed of both volunteers and inmates and directed by University of Iowa associate professor of music education Dr. Mary Cohen, based in a correctional facility in Coralville, Iowa. Taking the reader inside the walls of this medium-security prison, the book offers a glimpse at how music and the arts are offering second chances to the incarcerated.
The United States incarcerates more prisoners per capita than any other country, with more than two million people in U.S. jails and prisons. In addition to exploring the role of singing as a rehabilitative tool, the book examines some of the pressing issues facing the criminal justice system.
In doing so, it reflects on several questions – how can music and the arts inspire prisoners to change? Should the underlying philosophy of our penal system be one of retribution or restoration? What can restorative justice offer to all those touched by crime and the criminal justice system?
Dr André de Quadros, Professor of Music and Chair, Department of Music Education, Boston University, notes, “More than an account of the choir’s work, the book is a deep insight into musical humanity under dehumanizing conditions. Douglas’s work is evocative and thoughtful, deeply compassionate and humble, and brings the reader close to the troubled lives, wounds and hopes of the incarcerated men.”
Andy Douglas received an MFA in Creative Writing from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where he was the recipient of the Marcus Bach Fellowship for Writing about Religion and Culture. His first book, The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga, was published in 2013 by Bottom Dog Press. He is available for readings, and review copies available upon request.
TO ORDER: The book is available from Amazon.com (including ebook), in selected bookstores, and directly from the author. To support the author, order directly from him! Pre-order by sending your mailing address, $16, plus $2.75 for shipping and handling, to Andy Douglas, 2721-D Muscatine Ave, Iowa City, IA 52240. Or send your info to firstname.lastname@example.org and pay by paypal. A percentage of sales will be donated to Inside Out Reentry Community, a returning citizens support organization, and should you wish to donate any amount above the $16 cover price, this will go to the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance.
I was released from prison last May, after serving ten years for a crime I committed as a heroin-addicted teenager. I have spoken publicly many times since, about the decisions and circumstances that led me to the criminal justice system. However, at the Art for Justice Forum held at Emory University Law School, I was asked to talk about the role music has played in my life, how it both kept me free on the inside and has helped me to have confidence and livelihood in my newfound freedom.
I was around music my entire life. The daughter of musicians, I toured the country and sang on stage with my mother from as early as 3 years old. I played the cello in elementary school, switching to the guitar when I discovered punk rock. My best friend and I formed a band when we were 13 and played on stages (with big black X’s on our hands) all over Atlanta. It was around that time that I began to “experiment” with drugs— my ambition to use matched and eventually surpassed my ambition to play music. By 18 I was shooting a deadly mix of heroin and cocaine daily, and by my 21st birthday I’d committed armed robbery.
In the jail, I got clean for the first time in many years. I realized all I had given up, all I had to lose and to live for. At the Art for Justice forum, I remembered the time a volunteer let me play her guitar after a jailhouse church service—how grateful I had been to her, how I probably scared her with my weeping, and how that moment was the first time I had felt anything in a long, long time. That was perhaps the first in a series of releases—in which I opened up a little at a time, and began to grow, in the darkest, dankest of places: the basement of the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street.
There were long years when I didn’t get to play at all. I sang a lot when it was all I had. I remember finding spaces where the acoustics carried and amplified my voice— in the dungeon below the courthouse, where we sat shackled, anxiously awaiting an uncertain fate, or to be sent back without any answers at all; or in the visitation room, where we waited to be “shaken down,” having watched our families leave crying, trying to reassure them that we were okay.
It was in that room that I last saw Kelly Gissendanner, who was killed after 18 years on death row, having turned her life around and become a pillar of hope and encouragement in the prison community. She’d been visiting with her children in the room where they kept her quarantined from the rest of us. After her death warrant was issued, they had stopped letting her attend church and classes with us. I knew it may be the last time I would see her, so I sang for her. I cried, and she cried, and she thanked me. In Kelly’s last hours, she sang “Amazing Grace.”
Music is something that could not be taken from us. In a place designed to dehumanize you, where you’re told you are worthless—a uniform, a number, a discarded sub-citizen—you must make your own meaning. The system is not designed to rehabilitate, but to “correct–” to punish. I knew where my meaning was—music was my first religion—and I also believed that I would survive and thrive no matter how large the obstacles I had placed in my way.
How many others bought the view that their lives were worthless? That they were defined by their crimes, that they will never be anything more than a number, a statistic, an “offender.” The system will strip you of everything, even your humanity, if you let it. And once that happens what do you have left to lose?
The first panelist, Rachel May, a co-founder of Synchronicity Theatre, hosts theater workshops, where they give young girls in juvie the platform to tell their own stories. I remembered young girls who were in solitary confinement until their eighteenth birthdays. I remembered the ones who felt they had nothing to lose, facing long sentences, longer even than the one I had faced in my youth. And I hope that they find the freedom I did in music and in art and in words, that they will inspire others inside, and one day speak to an audience who wants to know how they made it through.
Another panelist had been making art since a childhood teacher had encouraged him to do so. In prison, he honed his portraiture skills, capturing the character of each person who lived in his unit, in graphite on paper. Like music, it was more than just a talent. It helped him to know who he was, and how he could serve a purpose in a void of meaning. It also helped him to develop his skill—one that would sustain him when he faced the task of finding work with a record.
I sang and played in the chapel services for my last three years at Lee Arrendale State Prison. I’ve since met women who tell me they remember hearing me sing in church— and they thanked me. It humbled me, that my voice and my music could have such an effect, could be a conductor for the same peace, beauty and transcendence that it brought me.
I talked and talked and talked at the Forum, until I realized I had taken up all the time. It was strange and wonderful to be asked about my experience with music in prison. The transformative power of art is no new idea—everyone has felt it, and yet we forget that the people who have been condemned, hidden out of sight and out of mind, need it too. The artist in a world without color, the musician in a room with only her voice bouncing off cement walls, the writer stripped down to the basics of pen and paper and his words—they are bound and confined, but their inner lives are rich, and they matter.
About the guest contributor:
Page Dukes is a formerly incarcerated writer, musician and college student. She grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of a touring singer/ songwriter who brought her along on the road during school breaks. She experienced life on the road with her mom and played in her own band back home, but started using drugs in her early teens, and by the age of 18 was hopelessly addicted to heroin. She committed armed robbery at 20 and served the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated she taught writing classes in the GED program, studied theology with the Atlanta Theological Association, trained and re-homed shelter dogs with the Forever Friends Canine Rescue, and performed with the Voices of Hope Choir. She was released last May and since has studied journalism and philosophy, worked as a reporting intern at the Marshall Project in New York this summer and the publications chief at the Roar, Piedmont College’s student media. As a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, she and several post-incarcerated peers work with academics and advocates to provide resources and support to reentering citizens in Athens, Georgia. She recently celebrated 11 and a half years clean.
About the Art for Justice Forums:
California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.
It’s been three years since a notebook jot-down outlining the idea for what would become the concept album project Die Jim Crow. I was on the B train to Kingsborough Community College where I was studying history. There was a book in my hand and I was about halfway through it. The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.
I was twenty-three years old and I wasn’t sure what my truest pas- sion was. Music? Filmmaking? History? Activism? I’m halfway through the book, about two stops from the end of the line and I write down:
“A concept album* called The New Jim Crow (*a la Amused to Death).”
Yes, my title—not too original. We’ll call it an homage. Amused to Death? A concept album by Roger Waters about humans amusing them- selves to death with TV. The album came out pre-internet. Worth listening to. It’s use of repeating musical themes, intense builds between tracks, and dark sociopolitical commentary appealed to me. Later on Pink Floyd’s The Wall (which Waters also wrote) would become a greater inspiration.
I’m a Jew from the Lower East Side of New York City who has not been to prison. Why did I care? To start with, the book in my hand. I was reading about this very current and domestic human rights crisis, so well researched in Alexander’s book, beautifully articulated—but I was lacking the personal stories. I wanted to hear it from the folks who were living the “New Jim Crow.”
I got off at the last stop and waited for the bus. “If I take on this project, I am going to meet people who I will know for the rest of my life. People who will change my life forever.” The bus arrives.
Growing up in L.E.S, I saw a lot—drug dealers, drug addicts, prostitutes, parolees, you name it. In my late teens I met a man who was all of the above at one point or another. He became a close friend. Alexander Pridgen. You can find a movie I made about him on the internet.
I knew others who’d done time as well. A few of them I considered friends. But I had no idea, prior to reading The New Jim Crow, of the scope of the issue: so many affected, so historically rooted, so nationwide, so many things.
I could elaborate on other reasons for becoming obsessed with this project, but I’ll keep it simple and turn these reasons into a question, one I’m still asking today. What is freedom?
Three years and hundreds of prison letters later, here I am — but much more importantly — here WE are. Die Jim Crow has gone from a notebook scribble to a realized project involving artists formerly and currently incarcerated from all over the country. Recordings have been done with formerly incarcerated artists in Wichita, KS; New Orleans, LA; Philly, PA; and Brooklyn, NY. At Warren Correctional Institution, a close-security state prison in Ohio, myself and DJC co-producer/ engineer dr. Israel have worked closely with solo artists on their music, in addition to the prison’s 22-member choir UMOJA (“unity” in Swahili).
From this body of work, we are thrilled to present to you the Die Jim Crow EP — the first sample of what the Die Jim Crow full length album will sound like.
Because digital is how most people consume music these days, we’ve decided to release an accompanying book that honors the many artists and stories on this album. Die Jim Crow is a massive project in scope, and all the energy that went into this EP simply could not be contained in a short digital booklet. And that’s just the six song sample.
The Die Jim Crow LP, a full length double album of 20+ original tracks, will also have a book accompaniment, and hopefully much more. Although the project is still in its early stages (it takes years to lay the groundwork for a project like this, so far three and counting), it feels like a natural and necessary progression for this music to be toured across America, especially in areas hit the hardest by mass incarceration and the New Jim Crow. But why stop there? In order to catapult great change, the music should also reach those of other backgrounds and political leanings—so wide promotion and international touring is also part of the plan.
The LP tells a three act story: pre-prison, prison, reentry. Similar to the LP, the Die Jim Crow EP follows this three act trajectory — albeit in a looser way. The first two songs take place outside the penitentiary walls (with “My Name Be Jim Crow” in some sort of strange farcical history land and “Tired and Weary” in a jail and a courtroom), the next two strictly in prison, and the final tracks back on the streets: wandering, exhausted, in a nightmare, broke, homeless, lost, beat — but not broken.
Also reminiscent of the soon-to-be LP, this album features artists from across the country — often within the same song — both in prison and formerly incarcerated. For example, “Headed to the Streets” was written by B.L. Shirelle during her incarceration, sent to Mark Springer and Anthony McKinney at Warren Correctional Institution for composition, discussed for months between myself, Mark, and Ant over the phone and in letters, then recorded at WCI with a full band and Ant on the first hook and verse. Once B.L. was released from Muncy State Correctional Institution in December 2015, dr. Israel and I drove down to Philly and recorded her vocal there. This unique method of song-making —— a combination of production inside and outside prison walls—is what I’ll call the “Die Jim Crow model.”
The one song on the Die Jim Crow EP that does not feature vocals and/or instrumentation from Warren Correctional Institution is “Plastic Bag,” which was written, co-performed, and lived by Carl Dukes. Dukes spent 31 years in New York State prisons only to return to the streets homeless, even though his parole officer had promised him housing. The powerful outro is the voice of Apostle Heloise, who served four years also in the NYS system.
I hope this project creates constructive dialogue and action. Confronting and dismantling the broken American incarceration machine will take a mountain of work, of which Die Jim Crow is an exciting part. I hope the music makes you feel something real, something deep, something both disempowering and empowering, and puts you in the shoes of the artists who created it.