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After a decade without music, Pa. prison inmates play again. The result is remarkable

The last music program disappeared after a public outcry over a 2002 VH1 show, "Music Behind Bars." One man had been a drummer back then. This was his first time playing with a band in 15 years.

Inmates at the State Correctional Institution, Graterford, participating in the Songs in the Key of Free program.
Inmates at the State Correctional Institution, Graterford, participating in the Songs in the Key of Free program.Read moreHolli Stephens

The harmonies weren't coming easily to Tom, a graying man from Kensington who has only recently, at age 57 inside Graterford Prison, begun learning to make music.

With coaching from Miles Butler and another inmate, Cody, 36, he tried again. The three men sitting in folding chairs, acoustic guitars in their laps, leaned in toward one another and, soon enough, found their way into the song.

For Tom, the experience represents something fundamental.

"This gives us a chance to be human," he said. In prison, he added, those chances are rare.

The program he's a part of, Songs in the Key of Free, represents a long-awaited dose of humanity for Pennsylvania state prison inmates. It is the first formal music program at Graterford in more than a decade.

The initiative, launched in October, is barely funded and is staffed mostly by volunteers.

But through it, inmates have already written and recorded an EP of original songs, with a lyrical focus on issues like mass incarceration and systemic racism, and they are working on a full album. They also have two concerts prepared: one to be performed inside Graterford by the men, and a parallel performance-by-proxy, featuring professional musicians, video clips, and the EP release on  June 16 at the Painted Bride.

August Tarrier, who founded the program with Butler last fall, says the goal is artistic, with a side of advocacy.

"It's countering the idea that people who end up in prison, who made a mistake or a bad decision, that they deserve for us to lock them up and throw away the key," said Tarrier, an editor and writer who has taught writing courses at Graterford for Villanova University. "What we're trying to do is make an intervention and to bridge the divide between inside and outside."

Building that bridge, though, has at times been slow and grueling work.

It is done in weekly Monday-afternoon visits, the only time when the musicians can practice together. Tarrier and Butler, along with composer Emily Cooley, a recent graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, and Eppchez Yes, a musician and theater artist, drive an hour to reach the high, barbed-wire-trimmed walls and then wait, sometimes more than an hour, to be admitted.

Once inside, they find themselves on the prison's long central artery, crowded with inmates moving between the echoing cell blocks and exercise yards on one side of the corridor and the workshops that line the other. Their destination is the auditorium, a cavernous room with rows of bright-blue chairs, battered concrete floors, and a couple of dozen inmates wearing maroon uniforms with the letters "D.O.C" stamped across the back.

Many are lifers, or at least long-timers. Some have been there long enough to remember the last music program. They say it disappeared after a public outcry over a 2002 VH1 show, Music Behind Bars. One man, Kevin, 67, had been a drummer in Dark Mischief, the prison metal band featured on the show way back then. This was his first time playing with a band in 15 years.

Cynthia Link, the prison superintendent, said reviving music at Graterford was controversial.

"My staff thought I was crazy," she said. "But when I was 8 years old, I played the clarinet. I was a fat kid with curly hair, and I didn't fit in, and music gave me a place. It gave me a way to emote out. And I knew that, for the men, it would do the same thing.

"In a place like this, you can feel like you're not heard," she added. "Music gives them a way to be heard."

Even so, these days, the prison prohibits programs like Songs in the Key of Free from using inmates' last names or portraying their faces. The same rules apply to media when covering such programs.

The men's voices, however, will not be contained.

The volunteers had gone into the prison assuming they'd be working with beginners.

"But the majority were very accomplished musicians. Some, before they were incarcerated, were playing around Philly and New York. A couple were touring," Butler said. "After that, we really restructured the entire workshop, because it wasn't a 101 course anymore."

On a recent Monday, the participants split into ensembles to refine their compositions, talk music theory, or practice for the coming concert.

On stage, an ensemble worked on a bluesy jam with the refrain "Who was there for you?" Men took turns chanting spoken-word responses. One mentioned his father, a loyal presence at baseball games. Another offered this bleak verse: "I was on death row for 30 long, harrowing years. I told myself, there was no one there for me. My pen became my Spanish guitar."

In a corner nearby, Tom and Cody were still working out the harmonies for a song called "The Garden." Like all the songs produced there, it's a collaboration, but based on the life experience of one of the inmates — in this case, a soft-spoken man named Bob, who is 65.

"It tells his story," said Butler, "about how he was a gardener and about how working with plants and flowers helped him feel free — and then they bulldozed the garden."

The collaborative process is important, Tarrier said. The concert isn't a talent show, but a group effort aimed at collective redemption. It's about highlighting the effects of mass incarceration, and the inherent goodness within each inmate.

So, she paired Benjamin, 33, with a 57-year-old man named Amin, for a song that became a tribute to both their mothers.

Benjamin, who is from North Philadelphia, rapped about a messy kind of unconditional love — enduring though his mother had been an addict, staying out all night.

"I originally wrote the song with an R&B hook," he said. "But we don't have anyone down here who can sing as I thought it should sound."

Instead, Amin, a trumpet player, came up with a soulful tune to play on the breaks. Amin's mother died in January, he said. He figured the sound of his trumpet would still reach her.

"My mother will be at the concert — believe!"

Both had been musicians before but had allowed music to fall by the wayside, focusing instead on legal appeals and daily survival.

Through the program, Benjamin said, "I found the love for it again. I remembered why I loved it in the first place."

Still, making music in Graterford has its limits.

Among them: Several men have recorded songs with help from the nonprofit Weathervane Music, but because of logistical challenges, most have not heard the finished product. Curtis' Cooley said that's been frustrating. The organizers have started playing back anything they record right away, so the men can hear it at least once.

Also, the project may conclude at the end of this year unless a sustainable funding source can be identified. (Either way, Tarrier and Butler hope to start a new project soon, making music with the women at a federal detention facility in Center City.)

For now, the inmates are making the most of the time they have.

"I really enjoy it," said Bob, 65, who has been in prison for more than four decades and who does not expect to get out. "There's not too much to enjoy in here."