Arts and Culture

Music programs in Minnesota prisons aim to make change

two people sit in prison recording studio
Devin Waldman (left) and Dr. Randall Horton (right) of Radical Reversal.
Courtesy of Radical Reversal

by Kai Cook | Carbon Sound

Music’s ability to transform lives and create hope in desolate situations is something that humans will never fully understand. Music is especially important in the lives of those currently living in incarceration.

Opportunities to pursue creative endeavors are highly restricted for those in incarceration, but the need for rehabilitative and restorative programming is incredibly high, so as to help people find a sense of normalcy within and after leaving incarceration.

Organizations like Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop have been working for years to incorporate creative pursuits in prisons across the state of Minnesota, but the opportunities for students of MPWW to work with music have been limited. However, as of April 3, four studio booths and a podcast room have been installed at MCF Faribault thanks to a new partnership between MPWW, Radical Reversal and the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

MPWW proudly shared on their Facebook that these spaces will be home to “songwriting, beat making, audiobook narration, podcasting and so much more.”

Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop’s journey to making creative writing classes a mainstay of Minnesota prisons began in 2011 with a single class at MCF Lino Lakes. Today, the organization proudly hires over 25 instructors “who have taught more than 250 creative writing classes to over 3,000 men and women in every adult state prison in Minnesota,” according to their website.

Radical Reversal, the organization that has partnered with MPWW to bring the music studio in MCF Faribault to life, describes its mission as providing rehabilitation through creative endeavors in correctional facilities across the country.

According to their website, they “conduct poetry workshops, seminars in music and music production, readings and performances.” So far, they’ve successfully implemented studios in Massachusetts, Alabama and Minnesota.

Jennifer Bowen, founder and artistic director of MPWW, shared that the key to making these programs a success is to be consistent in the pursuit of community. These programs require a willingness to be vulnerable and to be dedicated to the craft without needing to be celebrated for it.

Their priority is creating transformative arts programming that intentionally breaks down barriers to education in incarcerated spaces, and a massive part of that is having teachers that are ready to listen to the needs of their collectives (groups of MPWW students). 

The work that MPWW has done up to this point has only been possible thanks to 12 years of careful planning and protective work. Building trust and maintaining relationships is essential to creating long-lasting arts education programs in spaces like MCF Faribault, but these steps have also required a deep understanding of the systems at play in prisons across the state.

Radical Reversal, MPWW’s partner through the creation of the MCF Faribault Studio, is a relatively new program co-founded by Dr. Randall Horton. Through their mission of amplifying dialogue revolving around incarceration and rehabilitation through creative outlets, they’ve already implemented three studios across the country.

Their partnership with MPWW came about after Dr. Horton reached out to Jennifer Bowen, and after months of meeting and coordinating funding between the two organizations, a studio space was established at MCF Faribault akin to other studios Radical Reversal has created across the country.

With organizations like MPWW and Radical Reversal leading the charge for greater arts education opportunities for incarcerated communities, it’s important to remember that their missions are core to making Minnesota a more equitable place for all of us. Prior to MPWW establishing itself in 2011, Minnesota had no opportunities for prisoners to receive arts programming education.

Since the recording studio of MCF Faribault is the first of its kind in Minnesota, it’s a powerful reminder that our state still has a long way to go in order to alleviate the equity issues that impact not just the incarcerated, but all of us. The power of strong arts education, especially music education, cannot be underestimated — and we all deserve the opportunity to make music a part of our lives.

If you’re interested in learning more about Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop or Radical Reversal, you can check them out at their websites. If you or someone you know is interested in donating musical equipment to MCF Faribault’s new installation, please email jennifer@mnprisonwriting.org.

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