By Zach Schepis
Remember that scene from The Shawshank Redemption? The one where prisoner Andy Dufresne locks himself inside the office of the evil warden, putting a Mozart record on over the intercom so that all of the inmates can suddenly hear the music? The falsetto singing sounds to them like the voices of angels, and as the notes of “Che Soave Zeffiretto” soar high above the prison yard we can hear the voice of Red, played by Morgan Freeman. He tells us, “it was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man felt free.”
The very notion of this “freedom” behind bars has been called to attention by JPAY, a corrections contractor based out of Miami responsible for supplying video visitations and other forms of communication to over 1 million inmates in 35 states. Recently JPAY has released the JP3: an indestructible tablet that functions as both an mp3 player and outlet for email communication. These tablets can be purchased online for about $40, and mp3s can be downloaded by prisoners via electronic nodes located within the prison. Mp3s cost anywhere from $1.29 to $1.99 a song, and JPAY boasts an expansive library of over 10 million songs.
So far seven states (Louisiana, Virginia, Michigan, Washington, North Dakota, Georgia, and now Ohio) have allowed these tablets into their prisons. The hope is that this new accessibility will provide inmates with the opportunity for community outreach or building a new set of networking skills. Activities that make reintegration into society easier once paroled or released. Ricky Seyfang, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, recently told USA Today, “We have anticipation and hope to make it a good educational tool.”
This new advent, however, remains highly controversial. Concerns exist that giving the incarcerated access to email could spur future cases of harassment.
“We’ve been looking at the risks for a while,” says Kristy Dyroff, the Director of Communication at the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA), “the risks to both victims and witnesses. [The JPAY tablets] make it too easy to have uncontrolled access – to make threats.”
Even with the potential for community building, Dyroff believes that the possible harm such technology is capable of in the hands of potentially dangerous convicts could prove to be overwhelming.
“I understand it could allow them to develop community skills, but the risks outweigh it,” she explains. “Especially in cases of intimate victimizations, like stalking and sexual assault. It’s just not worth it.”
BTR spoke to a former inmate from Jamesville-DeWitt Penitentiary, a correctional facility located in Upstate New York, about whether or not he thought the JP3 could pose risks to people inside and out of the prison.
Our source requested to remain anonymous for this interview to ensure that future professional opportunities would not be limited by his reputation as a convicted felon. Currently he is enrolled at the Berklee College of Music, where he studies live performance.
“The controversy is definitely well-deserved in my opinion for a number of reasons,” he tells BTR. “You have a lot of potentially dangerous people and situations in that environment, and introducing anything of significant value gives inmates a good incentive to get into all sorts of trouble: stealing, selling, trading for drugs – stuff like that. And I think a lot of people, myself included, still believe that part of your punishment is having that separation from society.”
Then there is the idea that such a device could give way to temptation and distraction, diverting the expected mindset of productive redemption towards meaningless and trivial pursuits.
“If I had the JP3 during my year behind bars, well, chances are I probably wouldn’t have gotten half as much reading done,” says the former inmate. “I abused the hell out of my computer game privileges when I worked in the school there, so I probably would’ve spent a whole lot of time playing games. I probably would’ve never stopped emailing people too. It definitely would’ve been great having one, but I couldn’t see myself getting much done with it.”
But what about the music?
While the risks of prisoners’ communication to the outside world remain a legitimate source of concern, does the music these devices provide really pose any threat? Could a form of expression somehow distract prisoners and act as a determent to their rehabilitation? In an interview with Businessweek Chief Executive Officer Ryan Shapiro, the father of JPAY, had this to say: “Music was a no-brainer because inmates don’t have enough music. And they all love music.”
And honestly, who doesn’t love music? While remaining firm on her stance towards prison email, NOVA President Dyroff doesn’t much object to this creative prospect.
“Music is a positive thing,” she agrees. “I mean, obviously different types of music can have different effects on people. But music can definitely be a good thing.”
Access to music in prison is no new phenomenon. Arthur Lewis Glattke, superintendent of the Ohio State Reformatory from 1935-1939, issued a series of reforms that included radio broadcasts piped into the cell blocks via a radio room in a local barbershop. Some institutions even provide funding for music therapy and rehabilitation programs for prisoners, such as Florida’s “Art Behind Bars” and “Irene Taylor Trust” in the UK.
If only the inmates at Shawshank could have seen our nation’s radically changing landscape of rehabilitation. Fictional or not, the beautiful lull of Mozart spreading its wings over the jail yard would seem less and less like a dream.
“Oh man, music is an escape in a situation like that,” muses the former inmate and current Berklee Music student. “You really gain an appreciation for the power of song to reach people and make a meaningful impact on them, whether it be through music or even just people’s voices. It’s beautiful.”