Tag Archive | prison music

Regulating the Carceral Soundscape: Media Policy in Prison

In Alcatraz, prisoners were allowed to listen to radio vis this two-channel device; image by Flickr user adrian8_8

In Alcatraz, prisoners were allowed to listen to radio via this two-channel device; Image by Flickr user adrian8_8

The first thing I noticed about 4-block was the silence. It was so quiet that every time I sat on my bunk I fell asleep. The Reformatory was always one continuous roar, musicfrom radios and televisions, noise from guys shouting to one another up and down the block, it seemed to never end. But in Jackson it was very, very different. The daytime hours you could hear typewriters and the closing of cell doors, the phone at the guards desk ringing but that was it. And after 9:00 PM you heard absolutely nothing …” –“Chet” (qtd. in Music Behind Bars: Liberatory Musicology in Two Michigan Prisons, 66-67)

Film and television usually portray prison as the loudest place on earth, filled with nonstop clanking and shouting and slamming, the noise reverberating sharply off its  hard, flat surfaces. Actually, prison is much more likely to be a binary soundscape: either too loud or, at times, inhumanly quiet.

In fact, the manipulation of the sonic environment behind bars is part of the punishment mechanism itself, imposing or withholding different kinds of sound from different kinds of prisoners. There is a long history of prison music and prison radio, often within the context of education and activities aimed at recreation and rehabilitation, but here I’m talking about the mundane sounds of closing gates, locking doors, intrusive PA announcements, whirring fans, banging buckets, clattering garbage cans, and of course the human voice at any and all hours and volume levels: the inescapable sounds of quotidian prison life. The denial of the inmates’ ability to control that soundscape for themselves—or the compulsion that they do—thus becomes an issue not just of penal policy, but, interestingly, of media policy as well.

Indeed, the most fascinating questions in media policy these days are arising not at the FCC or OFCOM, but in places where policy scholars don’t usually look: schools, cinemas, and prisons. The state may have a lock on binding legislation, spectrum allocation, and international trade agreements, but it is the everyday policymakers on the school board or in the guard tower who directly affect more lives. With their pronouncements on which media forms may be used by whom, in what ways, and for what purposes, such accidental policymakers seek to regulate behavior through culture. Therefore, it is crucial to consider: which behaviors? which culture? and with which understandings of the relationship between the two?

One such instance of vernacular policymaking came last year when the Bureau of Prisons began testing the use of mp3 players in federal prisons, a technological update on rules that already allowed radios, televisions, and portable cassette or CD players.  The move opens up new vistas of choice and control for the prisoners, who are no longer limited to the 20-30 cassette tapes or CDs for their Walkmen that cell space allows, nor dependent on the spotty radio reception in the rural areas where many prisons are located (a spatial impact which itself is an effect of multiple layers of ideology, policy, and control). Unsurprisingly, the players have become many prisoners’ most prized commodity, though the control they may exercise is far from absolute. The song selection is vetted by authorities (no “Cop Killer” in the Penitential Jukebox, don’t you know) and a remote kill switch allows the warden to brick the player should an inmate’s privileges be revoked, or in the case of theft or barter (trading goods and services is almost always a no-no in prison, a prohibition only slightly more effective, one guesses, than the ban on masturbation).

JPay's JP4, The most common Mp3 device in U.S. Prisons

JPay’s JP4, The most common Mp3 device in U.S. Prisons

The introduction of mp3 players reveals not just the power and problems of local policymaking but the ways in which sound functions within a carceral system. For authorities, sound is “noise” when it interferes with security and a disciplinary tool when it doesn’t.  As Robert Powitz’s article, “A Simple Primer on Jail Noise Control” reminds readers of American Jails, the trade publication for the prison industry, “Good security practices dictate that we want to hear certain sounds, particularly those associated with malfunctioning mechanical systems such as ventilation and plumbing, and more importantly, we need to hear a correctional officer’s call for help, an inmate in distress, and even seditious conversation” (Sep./Oct. 2007, 104).  While it is surprisingly nice that Powitz  threw “an inmate in distress” in the article, he otherwise presents an exclusively top-down rationale for separating sound from noise; Michel Foucault’s emphasis on the visual panopticon notwithstanding, which several scholars have critiqued, aural surveillance is equally important to the well functioning disciplinary institution and the production of docile bodies.

The Visitation Area at the former Moundsville State Penitentiary in West Virginia; Image by Flickr user IndyDina

The Visitation Area at the former Moundsville State Penitentiary in West Virginia; Image by Flickr user IndyDina

Sound that American Jails would not classify as “noise”— i.e. sound that doesn’t interfere with security operations—is not merely incidental ambience, however, as the well-regulated soundscape produces its own disciplinary effects. The tortuous sensory deprivation of solitary confinement commonly includes the removal of sonic stimulation: silence as punishment. Already in the 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville critiqued the cruel silence imposed on prisoners in the U.S., and contemporary research repeatedly confirms the mentally destabilizing effects of sonic deprivation (see e.g. here and here).  Total sonic deprivation is merely an extreme, however; there is an array of situations involving sound management. For example, conversations with visitors often occur through soundproof glass; obviously the surveillance function of this setup is paramount, but the distanciating filtration of the telephone adds further punishment through physical denial of the unmediated sound of a loved one’s voice. The raucous cacophony of the daytime cell block, meanwhile, acts efficiently as population control of another kind: as an incentive to self-regulate so as to enjoy the perks that enable one to escape the noise. The routines of prison policy intersect with the technologies of media policy to turn the chaotic soundscape into good behavior, through the mechanism of a prisoner’s desire for a pair of earbuds and some familiar tunes. (Media policies also turn that soundscape into a profit center: tracks on the prison’s version of iTunes cost between $1.29 and $1.99, obviously more than the going rate on the outside.)

Via the regulation of the aural environment, the authorities’ “sound”—the elements of the sonic environment that they impose or, at least, see no need to reduce or eliminate—thus becomes the prisoners’ “noise,” while prisoners’ “sound” can be either provided or withheld as part of the disciplinary and economic logic of the carceral system as a whole. As one prisoner, “Marcos,” summarized the system:

They pacify us with these so-called liberties, such as personal TVs, personal radios, personal guitars, tapes, cable TV, a complete store like the free world. And plenty of sports! Why–they call this our rights. In actuality it’s a break down in our system” (qtd. in Elsila, 56).

Such are the effects of so-called “personal” media for such an impersonal environment, for individuals who have been turned into social non-persons: media policy disguised as personal liberty rather than mass prisoner control.  This disguise often fools the “throw away the key” law-and-order types who object to coddling criminals with the current Kenny Chesney track; for them, it is worth mentioning that the computers where prisoners download songs for their mp3 players are appropriately called—no joke—“Music Wardens.”

Image by Flickr User lanier67

Image by Flickr User lanier67

Foucault’s great metaphor for the disciplinary society—the prison as a template of surveillance and control that has been adapted to all spheres of modern life—becomes punishingly literal behind bars, but that is merely where it is most visible or, often, audible. As I explain to my students, media policymakers claim merely to regulate gadgets, physics, and economic relations, but in fact they are always and inevitably also regulating bodies and ideas. The production of the prison soundscape reveals the relation of policy to conduct, a relation that in everyday life often remains cloaked behind scientific and legal discourses.

A final point: equally punishingly literal is the notion of media effects held by those policymakers in the prisons. Inveterate behaviorists, they imagine–and then attempt to manipulate–a direct causal relationship between media consumption and action, between sound and deeds. Those manipulations, however, are a broken media policy for a broken system. As Marcos put it, speaking of the many entertainment options available to the docile inmate: “Even before I ever could imagine I was going to end up in prison, never in my wild imagination could I expect it to be this easy. Yes I said easy. We have no serious form of rehabilitation. . .Why does the state spend more on activities than education?”

Thanks to Genevieve Spinner for invaluable research assistance on this project.

Bill Kirkpatrick is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Department at Denison University. His ongoing research and teaching interests include media history and cultural policy; impacts of popular culture on American public life; theories, practices, and future of citizen-produced media; and media and disability. He is also co-producer of Aca-Media, a monthly podcast that presents an academic perspective on media. You can find out more at www.billkirkpatrick.net.

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Prison Music: Containment, Escape, and the Sound of America

We used our voices, whistles, and blow horns to make contact with those on the inside… Prisoners flickered the lights in their cells on and off throughout the building, banged on windows, and we could see the shadows of many of those on the inside waving and pumping fists. — Activists outside the Metropolitan Corrections Center, NYC, July 8, 2011

Activists outside Metro Corrections Center, NYC, 7/8/11

Noise demonstrations, like the one described above, occurred outside jails, detention centers, and prisons in cities like New York City, St. Louis, Oakland, Los Angeles, Montreal and Kitchener, Ontario throughout the weekend following July 4th, 2011. Activists rallied by playing music, chanting, launching flares and fireworks, and banging pots and pans– communicating their solidarity with the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, and their demand for justice for prisoners in each city. The noisy international demonstrations “connected local struggles against dehumanization to the California hunger strike and the conditions of the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit, as well as both the U.S. and Canada’s prioritization of policing and imprisonment over social welfare.” (San Francisco Bayview, 2011).

If music can be understood as “the organization of noise” (Attali, 1977), these audible signs of solidarity across prison walls would certainly be considered a form of music: prison music, perhaps. Prison has been a form of political organization for the United States, at least since the beginning of the 19th century; music (or organized noise) from or about prisons helps trace this history of containment sonically. Prison music also points to the possibilities of sonic and political escape from this carceral state.

The beginnings of the history of prison music in the United States can be traced to the War of 1812. A poet named Francis Scott Key met with British officers aboard a ship off the coast of Maryland to negotiate the release of American prisoners. He was detained overnight, having gained knowledge of the position of British military units and their plan to soon attack Baltimore. From detention in a ship floating on the Atlantic, Key watched the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry and reported at dawn to the prisoners below deck that he was still able to see the American flag waving.

"To Anacreon in Heaven" by J.S. Smith

He chronicled the experience in a poem titled, “In Defence of Fort McHenry,” and later put it to music with John Stafford Smith’s “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The title of Key’s poem changed in October of 1814 when a Baltimore actor performed the song in public and called it “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy designated “The Star Spangled Banner” as the official tune to be played at the raising of the U.S. flag, and in 1916 the song was declared the national anthem of the United States. Key’s experience in detention along with other American prisoners in the middle of the Atlantic was memorialized as the U.S. anthem, but it is rare, if ever, that the country’s ode to freedom is understood as its opposite – as an ode to unfreedom, as prison music. Set against contemporary examples of organized noise across prison walls, as well as examples of prison themes in U.S. popular music and culture, the U.S. national anthem can be understood as a beginning point for an American tradition of prison music.

Jimi Hendrix’s guitar version of “The Star Spangled Banner” allows us to see this dimension of the American anthem. Offering a scathing and raucous rendition of the national anthem at the 1969 Woodstock Festival off the heels of his song “Purple Haze,” Hendrix blurred the lines between a drug-induced delirium and the reality of U.S. containment, at home and abroad. Hendrix improvised on Smith and Key’s tune, allowing the notes and sounds to escape the page, and signified on the sonic and political constraints the song represented: major chords, patriotic lyrics, “American freedom.” In riffing on the national anthem, Hendrix perhaps released what was being held behind these classic American “bars”: the pain, the chaos, the possibility. Note the intervals bending from major to minor to major (harmony to disharmony and back again); the (song) structure being destroyed, re-formed, rebuilt anew; the reduction of the refrain to organized noise— sonic escapes in the forms of cries, screams, explosions. Here Hendrix’s performance fits into a trajectory of U.S. prison music by retooling the U.S. national anthem as a song of unfreedom, or perhaps, a different kind of freedom.

The relationship between prison and music in the United States can be heard most clearly through Black soundings of voice, tools, instruments, technology. Hendrix’s music, for example, represented another transnational trajectory of prison music arriving on U.S. shores from ships in the Atlantic, the genealogy of Black music. What began as tribal African songs remixed over plantation work in slavery conditions became field hollers, gospel, chain gang songs, work songs, the blues, jazz, country, rock, hip-hop. It is here that “logics of U.S. white supremacy”: slavery/capitalism, genocide/colonialism, Orientalism/war (Andrea Smith, 2008) coalesce and are rendered illogical, problematic, and questionable, simply (or not so simply) by their audibility. Take the following song, “Early in the Mornin’,” sung by Black prisoners in a 1940′s Mississippi work farm, as another example.

In this example of prison music, one hears sounds that confound the work that is being performed. The music makes the work illogical. It sounds like the work is not productive, at least not for the bodies performing it. This is destructive, or more precisely deconstructive, physical and sonic work: breaking down (song) structures, bodies, minds in the process. It is a sonic protest against imprisonment, even as prison labor is being performed. This is the sound of prison music, simultaneous containment and escape, and helps explain why prison (music) is so popular in the United States. Prison is a necessary function of white supremacist patriarchal capitalism– a necessary warehousing of surplus (bodies) for exploitation or elimination. Prison music is a documentation of this process. Listening to, and perhaps playing, prison music is our attempt to hear ourselves survive within these dehumanizing systems.

Incarceration in the U.S., 1920-2006

Prisons are popular in the United States, and not just in music (from anthems to work songs to blues to country to rock to hip-hop, imbued with the sounds and sights of prison). It’s the popularity and predominance of actual prisons, and the increasing rate of incarceration of U.S. residents, that undergirds the general public’s simultaneous aversion to, and fascination with, these literal echo chambers. Prisons in the United States are hyper-inaudible/invisible, and simultaneously hyper-audible/visible. The location of U.S. prisons behind distant, opaque, and quiet walls, sits strangely against the reality of prison as an increasingly intimate, transparent, and loud source of entertainment for the general public– think Cops (23 seasons), Law & Order (20 seasons), CSI (12 seasons), and Lockup (11 seasons), below.

Regrettably, sounds (musical or otherwise) from those incarcerated are rarely audible above the din of the prison spectacle in popular music, culture and policy. Jacques Attali wrote, “Music is a herald, for change is inscribe in noise faster than it transforms society…. Listening to music is listening to all noise.” The question is: when prisoners make noise, will we hear their music?

Jeb Middlebrook
holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from the University of Southern California, and is a Lecturer in Race, Social Movements, and Popular Culture at USC, University of Colorado–Colorado Springs, Loyola Marymount University, and People’s University, an online, low-cost college for first-time and returning students. He can be reached at jeb@solidarityinstitute.org and on Facebook and Twitter.

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