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Mixing beats, writing lyrics gives inmates a healthy outlet

December 8, 2018

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Gary Delton’s fingers curled around the metal lattice on top of the large glass windows of the Orleans Justice Center. From the fourth floor, he pressed his head close to the bars, watching the city below him.

The white concrete walls of the jail separated him from the chaos of the colorful city. But the high ceilings and bright fluorescent lights in the room where Delton and other inmates gathered offered a stark contrast from the sterility of jail and the feeling of being locked up. An audio amplifier, a drum and bass machine, a keyboard synthesizer and a microphone were in the front of the room, amid pages of lyrics piled on the desk.

“Rewind, take it slow,” Delton sang into the microphone, as he recorded the hook to an original R&B beat during a weekly music therapy session offered by the jail. He crossed his tattoo-covered arms over his orange jumpsuit as the clip played back. He nodded his head while he listened to his voice synthesized with the voices of his fellow inmates.

Delton is one of about 70 jailed people at the Justice Center enrolled in the music therapy program, which allows both men and women an opportunity to express themselves through music and collaborate with other inmates to create original tracks.

The program, which is meant primarily but not exclusively for jailed people with mental illness, is offered through Wellpath, an organization that runs the medical and mental health services inside the jail, said Alon Yizhak, who has been leading the sessions in the Justice Center since February.

“Music therapy helps inmates with mental illness the same way that it would affect any other human,” Yizhak said. “It helps them to vent, to be creative, to channel their energies and have a healthy outlet.”

But it also works toward a much bigger goal of reducing recidivism, said Philip Stelly, a spokesman for the Orleans Sheriff’s Office.

“The more we engage with inmates while they are incarcerated, the less likely they are to recidivate.”

In addition to the music therapy program, social workers meet with inmates to help with anger management and drug abuse, Stelly said. For those people nearing their release dates, discharge planning services are available to help connect them with medical and social services once they leave the jail.

Some sessions are also offered to inmates from the jail’s general population who believe they can benefit from the program. One of those serving time, Jacob Rollins, recalled the days after Hurricane Katrina when all he heard was silence. Being in jail brought back that “frightening” absence of noise, he said.

“It’s hard to live without music,” Rollins, a saxophonist, said. He said the program has motivated him to start planning for his future and hopes to get a music degree once he is released.

Each session lasts about an hour and begins with the inmates listening to a song, chosen by Yizhak, while reading its lyrics. The exercise prompts the inmates to write positive lyrics of their own, Yizhak said.

After listening to a song during a session, one inmate said the lyrics communicated the importance of respect, love and keeping a family together. Another said the words reminded him of his mom and her lone effort to raise the family.

“At the beginning, I’m more of a therapist and then I kind of step back,” Yizhak said. “I’m just happy to witness it,” he said of the sessions.

Next, the inmates broke off into different corners of the room and started writing their lyrics to an original track that they created with a drum and bass machine and a keyboard synthesizer in a prior session. After jotting some bars down, the men took turns recording their piece, passing the microphone along and offering feedback in between.

By the end of the session, seven inmates rapped their own lyrics, combining each of their perspectives into a unique track, titled, “Will The World Ever Know?”

“Ever know? How long it took for, to get the blow?

Put my life in the cold, trying to get out of the snow.

Down in the gutter where I came from, like a diamond in the rough

And deserve to shine, it took long, but I bet you respect my grind”

“The sense of continuity is really hard to achieve in jail,” Yizahk said, due to inmates constantly moving through tiers or leaving the facility as their cases progress. So the sessions are more focused on “short-term therapy” and teaching inmates how to follow through on a project, he said.

Once they finish recording inside the jail, Yizhak makes some finishing touches and uploads the tracks to a SoundCloud account called “Orange VisionS Voices of OJC.”

Yizhak said he encourages positive lyrics and upholds basic guidelines: “Keep it real, keep it positive, keep it conscious and no glorifying violence.” But sometimes he sees the inmates’ past experiences emerge, he said. In such cases, he lets them vent but reminds them that it won’t be recorded.

“Stormy nights and stormy days, my light seems to fade away

Got too much on my paper plate, finally keeping my balance straight

I’m on my knees, I pray”

For 29-year-old Christopher Winston, the program reconnects him to the world of music that he discovered as a kid after his parents encouraged him to start singing, hoping it would help with his stutter.

Before he was jailed in September 2015, he taught choir at his church. He said he received a degree in voice and piano and performed at Carnegie Mellon Hall. Winston aspired to receive his doctorate and become a music teacher, before he was booked in September 2015 with indecent behavior with a juvenile under the age of 13.

Now, his connection to music looks different. Clad in an orange jumpsuit, Winston gripped a microphone while singing the opening lyric: “Will the world ever know?” above Delton’s hook.

“Being without (music) is like losing your family, since this is what I’ve built my life around,” Winston said.

While Winston is stuck in limbo, anticipating a trial date that’s been repeatedly postponed since October 2016, he uses the music in the session to pass the time.

“It’s like I found my mom or dad again. I’ve found my lost-long puppy,” he said of the music therapy sessions. “It’s really comforting and enjoyable to know I am able to come here weekly to just be able to find that love of music again.”

“And I lost touch with my soul, just chasin’ for it by the day

I’m stuck with no freedom, I’m constantly fightin’ this demon”

Mario Defell, an inmate at the jail, called the session an opportunity for the men to “act like humans” in an environment that can often feel dehumanizing.

“People see us as animals in a box,” Defell said. “But I am human. I feel like you feel.”

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Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com

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