The Role of Music in Inmate Rehabilitation

By Ajente Kamalanathan

Inmate rehabilitation has been on the radar for a very long time. For years, Americans have been concerned about whether the prison system is effective in rehabilitating inmates during their incarceration.

At the Lee Correctional Institute, which is known to be one of South Carolina’s most dangerous prisons, the inmates have been learning to play instruments through a partnership program with Carnegie Hall.[1] Carnegie Hall is known as a legendary musical venue in New York City that holds concerts for some of the most well known musicians.[2] Thus, it is quite surprising to learn that a chamber ensemble affiliated with Carnegie Hall helps inmates write their own music and play instruments.[3] The program helps inmates learn to work with one another and gives them something to focus their attention on.[4]  For instance, one of the inmates, Randy, practices guitar daily and stated that “it gives meaning to my life.”[5]

Despite not having any prior experience with playing musical instruments, the inmates have been learning to play all sorts of instruments including the drums, violin, guitar, and several others.[6]  The organizer of the program, Claire Bryant, said that the point of the music program is to help the inmates become productive members of society.[7] It means a lot to the inmates to learn music with some very prominent people in the industry.[8]

Other prison programs in the country also focus on music. For instance, Jail Guitar Doors is an organization that does outreach events by going to different prisons with musical instruments.[9] The program’s mission is to help make a positive impact on inmates’ lives so that when released they will become productive members of society.[10]  Rehabilitation Through the Arts, another program in New York, works with five New York state prisons and conducts a range of activities including theater, creative writing, singing and several others.[11] The program strongly believes when inmates engage in the liberal arts, their social and cognitive skills improve.[12] Strong social and cognitive skills make the transition back into society much easier.[13] Whether it is reconnecting with family or wanting to further education, the skills that the inmates learn from the art programs in prison, helped them achieve their goals once they are released.[14]

In addition to art programs, there has also been a push towards higher education in prisons as well. Earlier this year New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, proposed a plan that would allow certain inmates to receive college degrees while serving their sentences.[15] Governor Cuomo stresses a concept that many people agree with, which is prisons should focus more on rehabilitation rather than punishment.[16]

Given the immense need for inmate rehabilitation, more prisons should focus on creative programs with positive impacts on inmates.  Programs involving education and music appear to give prisoners a sense of identity and self-worth, which can help them significantly once released.

[1] See Meg Kinnard, Carnegie Hall Brings More Than Musical Harmony to SC Prison, The State (February 12, 2016, 1:16 pm), http://www.thestate.com/entertainment/celebrities/article60032721.html.

[2] About Us, Carnegie Hall, http://www.carnegiehall.org/Information/About-Us/ (last visited February 23, 2016).

[3] See Meg Kinnard, Program Brings More Than Music to Tough Prison, Rocky Mount Telegram (February 21, 2016), https://www.rockymounttelegram.com/features/life/program-brings-more-music-tough-prison-3142267.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Our Vision, Jail Guitar Doors (last visited February 23, 2016), http://jailguitardoors.org/about.html.

[10] Id.

[11] RTA Programs, Rehabilitation Through the Arts (last visited February 23, 2016), http://www.rta-arts.org/programs/.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Jesse McKinley & James C. McKinley Jr., Cuomo Proposes Higher-Education Initiative in New York Prisons, N.Y. Times (January 10, 2016) http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/11/nyregion/cuomo-proposes-higher-education-initiative-in-new-york-prisons.html.

[16] Id.