Young inmates learn freedom of making music in program that also helps them ‘Beyond Bars’

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Musicians from Philadelphia indie rock bands are teaching music to young inmates at a city prison. “Beyond the Bars” is a program to help kids re-enter society after their release from custody.

On a recent day, electric guitars, bass amps, keyboards, and a full drum kit are set up in the gym at the Philadelphia Industrial Correction Center on State Road. It’s supposed to be a music class with instruction, but if they just feel like jamming, they can jam.

“Prison is a very rigid system, very no, no, no,” said program co-director Matthew Kerr. “We want to create safe space where they can guide it themselves.”

Some of the inmates have some musical background, others are complete beginners.

“I just started when I was arrested. At home, I never picked up an instrument,” said Tyquail, 16, incarcerated for almost a year and awaiting trial. (The center has requested that the last names of inmates who are minors not be used.)

Prison rules allow inmates to play instruments only when the Beyond the Bars instructors are present; that means twice a week.

“They come Sundays and Thursdays, I was so excited for Thursday and Sunday to come,” said Tyquail. “I get out my anger on a keyboard.”

Kerr, a high school teacher who used to play guitar in the local band Family Vacation, started teaching in prison a year ago at the request of Karen Bryant, then warden of the center and now deputy commissioner of operations for the Philadelphia prison system.

He was teaching an after-school music program, attended by Bryant’s daughter. Bryant was impressed with how quickly her daughter picked up the instrument, and she wanted to bring that kind of instruction into her prison.

“The kids are looking for something to do,” said Bryant. “Of course, the kids go to school. Just like any other kids, they are required to go to school. Other than that, there is not a lot of stuff to do.”

Kerr rounded up some of his musician friends, including Christopher Thornton, the guitarist from Pistachio Flavored Shoes. Thornton joined Beyond the Bars because he sees racism in the criminal justice system.

“When you go in, you see who is in there. It’s black and brown people,” said Thornton. “That is the crux of the issue. It’s the peak of where you can see it. It’s really evident here. We want to come into this environment and change it.”

Jamming inside prison is only half of the program. Kerr is developing a similar community music component outside the prison, made up of friends and families, that will welcome the teenage inmates when they are released. Together, the two programs will act as a musical pipeline to help transition teenagers back into society.

“When they re-enter society, we want them to be with other musicians, so they don’t have to think about their past,” said Kerr. “At the same time, they have teachers who taught them in prison. So they have safe relationships that will help them transition.”

As far as Kerr knows, no other such prison music program exists to help teenage ex-cons find bandmates on the outside.

None of the students going through the program have yet been released, but one — Lael — soon might be. He learned to play drums at an Apostolic church in Harlem, where he is from.

He’s good, and he likes it. When he does a fill, he gets drummer face.

“I love it. I love to play instruments. I was born to play instruments,” said Lael, who, when the instructors are not at the prison, makes beats with his hands, pencils, anything he can find. “The drums — I see them, I have to play them. It’s something I love to do.”

Lael is scheduled for resentencing in May, which may prepare him for release. By that time, Beyond the Bars should have a new band waiting for him to step into on the outside.

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