For the men and women behind bars in the Washington State prison system, listening to music can be an invaluable way of passing the time. One prisoner named Ed, whom I've been corresponding with over the last few years, told me that he listens to CDs on headphones for three hours a day and lives there, in the sounds in his head, rather than the reality behind bars in his cell. His is a life of regret, and time—he uses music as an escape.
Some would ask, why should prisoners who commit heinous crimes be able to have access to things like music and television? For the family of a murder victim, their loved one doesn't have that opportunity anymore. But for wardens and corrections officers, music is an important tool—one that keeps the inmates occupied. Music is provided for sale to inmates via a company that specializes in items suitable for prison and free of contraband. Meek Mill, Rick Ross, and T.I. are their most recent top sellers, and some facilities allow inmates access to new music right away via MP3 kiosks. A corrections officer from the Shelton prison spoke. He's been working there for 30 years.
Do you control what the inmates listen to? Do they have iPods?
Prisoners have the ability to have tape and CD players in their cells, and they can purchase and listen to music. We're looking at moving into iPods. They can listen to any music they want, the main restriction is with the players themselves—their tape or CD player can't have the ability to record.
How often do you regulate music due to content? Stuff like Ice-T's "Cop Killer" or bands like Cannibal Corpse singing about raping and killing?
It depends on the institution. Institutions can put regulations in place, but we can't make all the prisoners listen to Beethoven. If I had my way, I'd make them listen to the Beatles [laughs]. Depending on how bad it gets, or how violent it could get, we've put restrictions on certain things. Reading materials are heavily monitored—we don't let them have materials about making bombs, weapons, or guns, or anything of a really violent nature. But we do take into consideration First Amendment rights. We can restrict things for security purposes, but we gotta watch how closely we do it, because the inmates can say we're interfering with their religious practices or their cultural belief system. So music regulation would have to be something way out there that we don't want them to listen to, something that poses a real security risk.
There's a store where they can buy a tape or CD player and music?
Correctional Industries sells cassette and CD players that we've authorized, and the vendor Access Securepak has a catalog of music the inmates can access, but they have to pay for everything. Inmates can get money from jobs inside the prison that pay 42 cents an hour, or family members can send them money. They don't get cash, it's placed on their books.
What are the jobs inmates have?
They can work in the kitchen and food service department. They can work as a unit custodian or in a janitorial position—42 cents an hour isn't a lot, but they can save their money. Inmates who have retired from the military continue to get their benefits, though in the federal system it works differently and those inmates don't continue to get the benefits.
Do people ever complain about inmates having access to music and TV? Like a family member of a murder victim who might not think that's just punishment?
In the '90s, there was a big push by the community for prisons to get rid of televisions. Back in those days, the state purchased TVs and we would provide them to an offender, charging them rental for the cable service, which we still do today—we charge all offenders for cable. But the key is this: If I have a unit of 256 inmates, and I only have four staff members on any given shift to watch them, that's 256 people watching each and every move we make. If we give them a television, that babysits them. If we allow them music, that gives them something to do. It occupies their time. It's cheaper to occupy their time than to rebuild a prison. I'm sure there are victims' family members who get upset about that, but in the big scheme of managing offender behavior, these are privileges we can use to our advantage.
What's an example of a victim's family protesting?
Back in the '90s, there was a senator whose daughter had been killed in Pioneer Square by a work-release offender—he raped and murdered her, and her mother ended up becoming a big advocate for reforming corrections. She wanted to do away with TVs for the inmates, saying, "Why should they get to have them?" It took a lot of education to get people to understand that television is a tool for us and a privilege we can take away from them. Because I don't have the time or the resources—and neither do the people in the state—to pay four times the number of staff to ensure we don't have prisons getting burned down. We see it as a good outlet for the prison population.
Is having access to music and TV something the inmates value?
Yeah. It's two things you can have in your cell. It's a good escape. It gives them something to take their mind off the prison world. There are benefits to it, and keeping them occupied is important. We don't want them spending time watching us and thinking about how to go against us. And if they violate rules, we can take it away. It's a privilege, not a right.
I'd want all the inmates in my prison to be constantly listening to Brian Eno and this ambient acoustic duo from Brooklyn called Mountains. Their stuff is exceedingly calming. Or the 33- minute Allman Brothers track "Mountain Jam." I bet that doesn't get played too much on the inside.
You remember the gang-related movie Colors with Sean Penn? We showed that when it came out. Doing that was pretty radical, showing it in a prison. But it didn't incite anything. It didn't make life worse for us. We were careful to be attentive to how people reacted to it.
Who monitors the music they listen to?
It's hard to regulate every song. A lot of the rap stuff talks about guns and violence, but we don't have the ability to have someone dedicated to monitoring the content of all the music that's purchased by inmates. If it's real bad, we'd review it for restriction, but the context of the music changes over time, too. Think of the '50s—when Elvis came out, people were saying his music was leading people down the path of ill repute. And think of violence in TV now, it's everywhere. We do have the ability to restrict material that's deemed too violent or whatnot, but I couldn't tell you anything off the top of my head.
When will you take their music away? When they fight or are insubordinate?
If they're using it inappropriately. Also, they're not allowed to trade, borrow, or loan property, so we'll take it away if they're doing that. If they're playing it too loud after we've warned them, we'll tell them to use their headphones. There has to be cause to take it away, we wouldn't just take it away because they got in a fight. We have investigative units that monitor things—if it becomes a security problem, we assess it and make a decision.
What have some of the budget cutbacks changed?
The offenders don't get to play music anymore. There used to be a musical program and a room with a drum set where they could play. Instruments were given a $400 value and could be kept in their cells, but we lost the program. I know some may disagree, but music helps maintain a balance to prison life.
I've written back and forth with a prisoner at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla who is serving a life sentence without parole for a murder he committed when he was 20 years old. He's been in prison for 10 years and says music is what gets him by. Stevie Wonder is his favorite, and Pink Floyd. He's recently discovered Prefuse 73, Flying Lotus, and Tortoise. I've suggested Tycho and Mad Lib. He says he wouldn't know what to do if he lost his privilege of listening to music, so he stays out of trouble.
And that is exactly why we want to keep music available to the offenders. The benefit works both ways. My job is to keep this prison safe, and standing—and letting the prisoners have music helps me do that.