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Live from Trumbull Correctional: The Prison Bands Plugging in and Playing Live Behind Bars


The sorrowful blues of B.B. King's "The Thrill is Gone" isn't lost on anyone in the room as Vincent works his blue Fender Telecaster into a frenzy. Vincent's known as "Starter" to the other guys around here, and not just for his virtuosity on the guitar. He's also a sound engineer and music theory teacher and he's been doing this since it all started.

"You gotta be out of trouble for so long before you can be here," he says.

Vincent is talking about the Music With A Purpose program at Trumbull Correctional Institution, because Vincent is locked up here and he's not leaving anytime soon. With nearly a decade to go before he gets a shot at parole, Vincent joins dozens of other inmates here in pursuit of music. And rock 'n' roll.  And freedom of some limited, creative sort.

"This is the goal," he says. "This is the ultimate goal, to be able to come out here and play."

Trumbull Correctional Institution is a low-slung campus of imposing buildings, all spread out in beige on 130 acres of Leavittsburg soil in eastern Ohio. Surrounded by woods and the ranch-style homes that dot much of this part of the state, the prison cuts a grim, formidable profile across the land.

There's a colorful lighthouse scene painted onto the wall behind Vincent, but, otherwise, this a fairly beige room in a fairly beige prison in fairly beige Trumbull County, Ohio. For a couple of hours each week, that doesn't have to be the case.

Frost settles on errant leaves as a cold November morning curls around the prison, the barbed-wire fencing catching slight flurries that sprinkle to the ground. Inside, men shuffle across the yard. Winter breaths coil against tattooed necks and scraggled beards. The first shift of security detail eyes each passing soul with a familiar and detached nod.

A painted line of yellow footprints leads visitors from the entryway building toward the visitation rooms just inside the compound. For many inmates of Trumbull Correctional, this is where brief moments of magic alight behind prison walls. With only eight hours of visitation each month, though, that magic is fleeting.

In between those intersections with reality and the comfort of family, inmates play sports, read, pray, write, etc. Anything to push the focus elsewhere.

But for inmates who get along well during their stay at Trumbull and showcase good behavior, the state rewards them with access to artistic programming. For a select few of these convicts, idle hours are broken up with the opportunity to plug in and rock out. To play music. To sing.

Right now it is 8:30 a.m., which is the perfect time of day to go to a concert at a state prison.

Max stands tall in his S.D.P. T-shirt - homemade threads that sport a twist on the Superman logo - as he grips the microphone, occasionally tossing off a word and echoing the rhymes that his cohort, James, is spitting. Max is known as Supa Dupa around here. When the Music With A Purpose program got started in 2006, it was only natural that he set up a hip-hop crew and call it Supa Dupa Productions. S.D.P. one of the eight bands that practices and performs at Trumbull Correctional (and there are two more waiting to join the roster). Max, once and now forever a convicted murderer, is a rapper.

"I've been here since the program started," he says. "It's a good thing for rehabilitation. It keeps them out of trouble." He casts a nod toward the other guys who write and rap as part of S.D.P.: Zone, Mike, Mook Jonez, Boobie, Jay and James. (Because the state of Ohio did not approve the inmates for media attribution, Scene is only using first names or, in some cases, aliases.)

The group fluctuates now and then, bringing in new members when so desired and cutting albums that emote a common yearning for redemption. Max writes all the time. Likewise, his fellow rappers etch rhymes whenever possible. Zone, for instance, adds: "I always got a pen and a piece of paper on me. Every time I think of something, I write it down. I definitely have a story to tell the world."

Everyone in the program that spoke with Scene says that the writing is an important part of staying human in prison, of channeling some sense of self.

"It keeps them from repeating and coming back," Max says. "Me and all the guys - everybody in the group - I've seen them teeter-totter and go from bad to good. I try to give them this opportunity so they can come here and see what's good."

Max blinks, taking a moment to describe what all of this means, and a tear rolls down his cheek.

"It's hard. I made a mistake to come here and I'm trying to help everyone here help each other. I really regret my mistake. I'm just ready to get out of here. I want to help all these guys to do good, then they can help other guys do good. In my group, that's the purpose before them."

His influence on S.D.P. is clear. Mike, another rapper with the group, says that he had never done anything like this in his life before meeting Max. "I never did the music thing. I used to always help Max set up. I took a liking to it, and he gave me an opportunity to let my voice be heard. I did some songs, and I really liked it. It helped me express myself. It shows that we're locked up, but we're able to do something positive."

Supa Dupa Productions cut a CD recently, and they'll be performing their original songs for the general population later this month. It'll be one of the handful of concerts performed this year. The earnest pride with which these guys speak about the chance to play live is a shocking contrast to to the drabness around them.

Max was admitted to the state prison system more than 15 years ago. Among his lyrics, an illustrative line stands out: "17 years in the penitentiary / I came with black hair, now it's salt-and-peppery." And it is.

When the guys in S.D.P. sit down after one of several two-song sets, the members of DryveTrayne take the stage and plug in their instruments: We're talking three guitars (Vincent on lead, along with Bill and Matt), a bass (that'd be Mike), a keyboard (another Mike) and a full-bodied drum set paired with a conga (Josh and Nathan, alternately). Vincent grips his Telecaster with authority and looks over at Bill, who takes a seat at the head of the stage and readies his acoustic guitar. "I'm a lazy guitarist; I don't like to stand up," he says with a laugh.

Each musician is wearing a DryveTrayne T-shirt, a noted contrast to the navy blues seen around the yard. Much like the S.D.P. shirts, these screen-printed complements to the music are made by other inmates in the prison. Vincent says that there are more guys involved with this program than those present for the show. There are guys setting up equipment and chairs, designing CD covers, printing the shirts; hell, even those with no connection to Music With A Purpose can be heard humming the latest DryveTrayne riff in their cell block.

Brad Speece, the prison's recreation director, says that the impact of the program is felt throughout Trumbull Correctional. Some inmates are shaping their behavior to get a shot at the stage. Others are tuning in to the lyrics and, Speece and others can only hope, taking away the profound messages that these musicians are laying down.

It's easy enough to walk through the metal detectors and take a quick look around and dial down expectations, especially at 8:30 in the morning. But whether it's DryveTrayne working toward a melodic peak in a B.B. King lick or the guys in Supa Dupa Productions spitting fire at the speed of lightning, certain conclusions become clear: These are great bands. And more than that, they're all genuine about the music.

Zone, who had just finished up his set with S.D.P., tells Scene later in the day: "There's a lot of lost talent in the joint." He fixes his gaze when he talks like that.

Unlike half-assed bar bands with the freedom to bounce around late-night stages, practicing and writing when they damn well feel like it, the fellas in Trumbull are keen on making every brushstroke and rhyme count. They have to. In the end, music is either a short-term blessing to create something of their own or a long-term road to reflection and change.

"The guys love this program so much, and it gives them that incentive to behave themselves," Speece says. And there's a lengthy waiting list for the program; guys are spending every waking minute shaping up and getting right with themselves just for the shot at playing in a band.

Once each year, the musicians get to invite their families into the prison for a live show, which is a shared ultimate motivation for many that pick up instruments. That concert for their families, the chance to show what they've made of themselves and experience a brief glimpse of normality, is a beacon.

"It's like freedom," Mike, the bassist in DryveTrayne, says. "For a couple hours, ain't no walls, ain't no fence, ain't nothing. It's just you and your buddies and their families in the garage playing music." He adds that the annual show comes with the opportunity to record a CD, which then gets shared with families. Trumbull retains the rights to the music, which is locked down pretty tight. Families sign disclaimers that they won't let the music slip out any further than their immediate circle - and that the songs are solely for personal use.

Still, the opportunity to do anything like that is what keeps most of these guys moving forward.

"Visits here are very formal, but [these shows] are more relaxed," Bill says. "My kids can walk over with me to the vending machines and hold my hand. Just those two hours, I get to feel like a father. I'm slowly watching my kids become strangers to me."

Bill talks quietly, which is a far cry from his James Hetfield vocal work onstage. But when he talks about his kids like that, the other guys look over at him. They're all here because they did terrible things — murder, rape, robbery and more — and share certain experiences born out of life behind bars only they can understand. Bill's sorta sitting off to the side, legs kicked up onto the chair in front of him. The other guys are looking at him, but not really, because they're looking at their own children, their own families. But those people aren't here.

It costs $72.82 per day to maintain a single inmate at Trumbull. That number comprises relevant staffing, time, meals, supplies, etc. Music With a Purpose relies on outside funding in a sense — all instruments, save for the drumset, are bought and paid for by the inmates' families.

"That shows our folks what we do with their investment," DryveTrayne bassist Mike says. "You gotta show them that we're not wasting their time. We're actually doing something with ourselves while we're in here, instead of wasting our time like we did before we got locked up."

Inside, the men of DryveTrayne and Supa Dupa Productions and the six other bands at Trumbull and the two other bands just now starting up inside the walls are all holding on tight to that shot at a second chance. It's all they have. It's the crown jewel of what little the state affords them as incarcerated criminals.

James is one of the new guys at this place, relatively speaking. Admitted nearly a year ago, he's fallen in with the music program and poured his soul into what he writes. As a singer, intoning R&B-style poetry, he commands the stage and lends positive influences to his fellow musicians. He openly opines about his crime in some of his songs.

"When I first got sentenced to 30-to-life, I felt like giving up for real and just throwing in the towel. I felt like I had lost my purpose," he says. "But ever since I was a kid, writing music and singing has always lifted my spirits up. To be able to be in prison and to be able not only to write music but to record it and hear myself - that's what made the difference between me coming to prison for 30 years and being non-productive...and being productive. It gave me that purpose when I needed it. And it's so crazy, because I never thought that music would be the thing that saved me, and it did."

The notion of music saving a person is a surprise to some inside, like James, who hadn't thought much of the gig as anything but a hobby at first. For others, it's natural. That concept of music as therapy coalesced after World War II as the budding field of music therapy cropped up at universities throughout the 50s and 60s.

These days, therapeutic and educational programs are trickling into prisons around the world. Still, programming is sparse. The venture at Trumbull Correctional is the only such program throughout the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, which oversees dozens of public facilities in the state.

Rex Bacon is an activity therapist at the Northeast Reintegration Center. He previously spent more than a decade at Grafton Correctional Institution. And while he's not affiliated with the Music With A Purpose program at Trumbull, he says he's seen similar programming - music therapy, specifically - impart positive impacts on prison populations.

"They're learning entrepreneurial skills, business skills, collaboration skills," Bacon says. "The difference between that and [music therapy] is the presence of a credentialed professional. They're doing it independently and informally."

Indeed, "music therapy" connotes a very specific sequence of activities - an assessment, an intervention, an evaluation. That's not what Music With A Purpose is, but Trumbull's program carries echoes of similarly therapeutic uses of music from across the world.

Billy Bragg, the legendary guitarist and songwriter, helms a music education program at Guys Marsh prison in Dorset, England, and points out the immediate benefits for inmates: "One thing playing guitars can do is take you out of the place you are in - and that's crucial in prison."

The guys at Trumbull elaborate on that feeling after their show is over.

"I got a lot of anger inside of me. It's helping me vent and get it all out," rapper Zone says. He's been with S.D.P. and the Music With A Purpose program for about two years now. "I only speak about my life and what I've been through - ain't no way around it." Given Trumbull's programming, Zone and his fellow writers and musicians have that outlet to speak and be heard.

In a broader sense, professionals involved with the arts in prison settings are working to tie such programming to its related consequences. There are unanswered questions about the data-driven impact of what programs like Music With A Purpose accomplish for society-at-large, but trends are forming, if only informally.

"Activity therapy, expressive therapy, music therapy as components of a mental health treatment program seem to influence and reduce recidivism," Bacon says. "Maybe I'm being a little bold in that, but that could be made a hypothesis. When this treatment is in place, chances of recidivism are reduced."

Outside of the research, the general body of which is still growing, Bacon says that inmates exposed to music - either therapeutically or as a part of a music therapy program - more often than not use the tax-funded resources at their disposal more wisely.

Inmates in the program say that the music has become the fulcrum of their world here in prison.

"It's a stress-reliever," Speece says. "These guys have nothing but time, and a lot of them never played an instrument before they got here. They put the time in, and a lot of these guys have become great musicians."

Outside, just beyond the windowpanes in this small recreation room at Trumbull Correctional, it is quiet and cold.

James stands before a small audience in the recreation center. He's wearing an oversized S.D.P. T-shirt. There is one more song to sing before this morning's concert is over, but he takes a moment first.

"Sometimes life can be a cruel teacher, giving you the tests first and lessons later. I made a lot of mistakes that I'm not proud of, but I can say one thing: Today, I'm taking the steps toward becoming the individual that I was meant to be in life. I'm not letting the things in the past that I can't change determine and dictate my future and where I'm trying to go in life. When I first got incarcerated under this prison number, I was sentenced to 30-to-life, and I didn't know how I was going to make it through. This is my release. This is what's keeping me out of negativity — to be able to write music and to be able to express myself."

The beat begins pumping out through the stack speakers, and James shuffles to his right. And then James sings.


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