Just eight classes into a music education course at Cook County Jail, inmate DâAndre Morris already looked like a professional. Using an Apple computer connected to two subwoofers, Morris deftly cut and blended musical tracks at a new recording studio built in the basement of the jailâs medium-maximum Division 11.
Long interested in songwriting and music production, Morris said heâs never worked on professional sound equipment like the kind inside the studio locked behind a large green metal door with a single square window. Morris, whoâs spent more than a year behind bars awaiting trial on an attempted murder charge, said heâs grateful to be learning the technical aspects of sound engineering, even if he regrets that it took a stint in jail for this opportunity.
âItâs a blessing,â said Morris of the freshly painted 33-by-25-foot cinder block storage room, the result of fundraising efforts by local musician Antony Ablan.
As Morris adjusted sound levels at Ablanâs gentle instruction, four other young men â also dressed in the tan jail jumpsuit and from different parts of the Chicago area â sat in a semicircle behind them. They laughed and chatted about their new song titled âChoices,â scribbling down lyrics or shortcut keys for the sound-editing software in their notepads.
In Chicago, where scores of young men, some with ties to gangs and violent drug-selling cliques, dream of reaching rap music stardom, Ablan and others believe the music studio could be a new approach to keep inmates mentally engaged.
âSomething like this (doesnât) happenâ Morris said. âItâs just unheard of, being in jail and being able to learn to engineer and produce and learn how to play different instruments. And just to be able to do something thatâs fun. Itâs pretty cool and a great experience.â
Ablanâs studio isnât the only recording studio inside a jail facility: The Richmond City Jail in Virginia has had a small studio since 2013, along with two prisons, the East Jersey State Prison in New Jersey and Halden Prison in Norway. And supporters of Ablanâs efforts â Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart among them â believe the studio could offer specialized training to young men at a critical time.
Job training for young men is an important factor in fighting jail recidivism, jail officials said. While the state of black employment for men ages 20 to 24 in Chicago has improved recently, the number of men who are unemployed and not in school remains stubbornly high at 37 percent, according to the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
âWhen you look at every study thatâs ever been done, it all comes back to the same thing,â said Dart, who OKâd Ablanâs proposal. âIf you give people opportunities for legitimate jobs and careers, they more likely than other folks will avoid the criminal justice system.â
The basement studio is next to a state-of-the-art kitchen and art studio all set up by Chef Bruno Abate, whose âRecipe for Changeâ initiative at the jail has tutored detainees in food preparation and art skills. Food, music and art are staples of life, according to Abate, who mentored Ablan and is credited by Dart with helping turn around the lives of some inmates.
âAt the end of the day, what we all want is that you guys donât come back here,â Abate told the detainees during a recent visit.
Through a crowdsourcing campaign last fall, Ablan raised more than $12,000 to foot the bill for constructing the studio and attracted other musicians and instrument companies that donated equipment. Soon, Ablan hopes to expand the course from two days to five days. If the expansion continues, Ablanâs program could grow to include female detainees. Currently, heâs hoping to gather other music professionals to volunteer their time to mentor his students. âIâd like for this to be the best music program in the country. Never mind that itâs in a jail,â he said.
Inmates interested in Ablanâs program had to fill out a questionnaire gauging their interest in learning about music. His selections were passed along to jail officials, who weeded out those with troubled backgrounds while in jail, though facing violent charges didnât necessarily disqualify applicants, officials said.
But making music is only part of the goal of the program. It aims to help detainees sort through their own personal struggles using the creative songwriting process. Their song “Choices,” for example, came about after a simple in-class chat about Chicago rapper Kanye West’s support of President Donald Trump spurred a very personal hourslong exchange about the choices one makes in life.
While technical instruction is important, the class also reinforces skills for dealing with tough situations, said Erik Roberts, an education liaison between Chicago Public Schools and the county jail, who aids Ablan in the course.
âMany of the people here have talents, but they donât have a tangible way to get there. Weâre also teaching life skills at this class,â he said.
Roberts, who was recruited as an educator in the program, is himself a rapper known as Sycosis and has produced and performed raps since his high school days as a way of coping with his own fatherâs imprisonment. In the class, Roberts patiently listens to the inmatesâ ideas while offering his own lyric and sound ideas.
Itâs unclear whether the public will ever get to hear the detaineesâ music, though they and Ablan remain hopeful that they will be able to post their completed songs on a music-hosting site like SoundCloud.
For Marco Martinez, the studio offers a much needed diversion from the monotony and loneliness that can come with jail. But writing lyrics has also offered a chance for Martinez, a Blue Island resident in custody the last four years on an attempted murder charge, to calm his wild youthful spirit and channel his thoughts in a positive way.
âI wanna learn myself â I wanna learn my purpose,â Martinez said. âIâm still trying to find myself just because Iâve been incarcerated since I was 17. I was living life real quick, so to be able to sit down and actually analyze my thoughts and be able to see the potential that I actually have as a person, itâs a really good accomplishment for myself.â
The youngest of the group at 20, Martinez has used his love for corrido, a popular type of Mexican band music that relies on poetic narrative, to help find his voice within the class while relieving the stress of being locked away and judged by others.
âReally, me being in here for four years, especially being a (maximum-security) inmate, weâre not really exposed to too much programming because of the situation that weâre facing, and a lot of people look at us way different,â he said.