Originally published in QMUnicate Issue 146, 28 November 2020
Jill Brown, formerly know as a presenter and reporter on ScottishTV, is a singer which launched her own media/PR consultancy in 2007, as a way to pursue music. Her sound can be defined as ‘soul’ and one of her passions is making live music broadly accessible to those who live on the fringes of society: the prison inmates, the homeless or those struggling with addictions.
One of her latest projects originated after conducting a few song-writing workshops in HM Prison Barlinnie (the biggest prison in Scotland), earlier this year just before lockdown. This experience unchained the idea to set up Criminal Records, and as the names describes, it’s a musical label for prison inmates. With the support of American music manager Eric McLellan (who has signed artists like The Pretenders and Madonna). The label plans on recording and releasing records with those who are still inside the prison system, something that worked for rappers such as 2Pac and Lil Wayne. But for the moment, they will start working with ex-criminals once they are released from prison. Derek McGill, governor of Barlinnie Prison has said “Jill has been working with us on a sessional basis to improve their musical skills, develop their performing skills and enhance other factors that will benefit them on release and help them desist from criminal activity. These other factors include self-esteem, self-awareness, empathy and social interaction. This has been a very positive partnership so far and has been making a real difference.”
To understand why prisons need and welcome projects like ‘Criminal Records’, we need to rethink why prisons exist in the first place. Revisiting Angela Davis’ work concerning the prison industrial complex, we come to learn a few things…
Imprisonment has become the predetermined response to an increasing number of social problems…Maybe the saying “out of sight, out of mind” is not that far from the truth. Prisons perform magic. But let’s not fool ourselves by thinking that prisons are the panacea to all these issues: they just make ‘problematic’ humans disappear. To mention a few examples, the inconveniences of homelessness, unemployment and drug addiction are vanished into thin air (or into prisons, if we’re being honest).
Also, we must observe how the capitalist economic system is always on the lookout for cheap labor… and what is cheaper than prison labor? It is even based locally and nationally. Even when they are out of sight, these parasites are still contributing to the system. And even better for them: they will do it quietly and without an option to back out of their (prison) jobs.
We know who is seen as a parasite by the system: the homeless, the mentally ill, the drug addicts and specially: the poor, the working class, the dispossessed… But is it surprising that it coincides with the definition of the system of who is a criminal? Pardon the joke but, as Pam Beesley from The Office would say “They’re the same picture”. At least to the powerful ones.
From the beginnings of wage work, laws were set asymmetrically towards employers and workers. Law enforcement, with crimes such as tax evasion from company CEOs is more lenient than with robbery to a local shop. And even if these powerful and affluent people are caught in the act, there is nothing a few thousands can’t fix.
What I’m trying to argue here is not an abstract defence of criminals or of crime. The opposite, if we analyse this carefully: I believe people should not be labelled as good or bad forever. We, as humans, are inherently complex and changing all the time. We evolve and change our ways with experience and most probable many mishaps and hardships.
The problem is not only that prisons work as smokescreens for bigger unsolved problems: society turns its back to prison inmates as soon as the step in the prison and won’t forget their adjective “criminal” even when they get out. The problem is that prisons are seen as places of punishment, but not rehabilitation. Although I do not believe that the rehabilitation is a completely successful project (so far), I must point out our hypocrisy as a society when we say that we believe that anyone can change, but somehow we don’t allow this statement to apply to prisoners.
(This next paragraph was cut out of the QMUnicate article due to exceeding the word limit)
Like Jill Brown’s project, there are many other programs that have as their purpose to re-integrate prison inmates into society. Writeaprisoner.com has created a network where you can stay in contact with someone who is in the US prison right now. Keeping contact and creating new bonds with someone who isn’t your family is probably a well-received activity for someone who is in lockdown for a long period of time. Just like you and me (and the majority of the world) have been this past year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Another project that I have come to know is the Ear Hustle podcast, hosted from Sant Quentin State’s Prison in California (US) by Nigel Poor alongside Earlonne Woods and Antwan Williams. They talk about life within the prison and their lives before that, and it is a very interesting listen. A narrative we don’t hear from very often, apart from fiction media. One last project to mention, as we could be here for a while if I listed all of them, is Prisonerspenfriends.org, is another project very similar to writeaprisoner.com, although this one is UK based and works with the help of volunteers.
Do you believe in giving people second chances? Jill Brown does. And so many people should start to think likewise about this issue as well. We should give prison inmates a second chance and give their music (and therefore their feelings) a listen.