In Louisiana, women make up 6.7 percent of the total inmate population. Of the 2,680 women serving time in the state, 1,076 are housed at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW), fifteen miles south of Baton Rouge in the town of St. Gabriel. The remainder of the female prisoner population is scattered across the state in local parish jails. LCIW is the only state facility for women, housing women of all custody levels including two on death row. To assume that the prisoners at LCIW are like the men at the other eleven state prisons would be to miss important aspects of how we incarcerate women. By extension, we would also miss important aspects about how music is practiced and valued there.
Speaking only generally to these differences, there are fewer musical opportunities for imprisoned women. At Elayn Hunt Correctional Center, the men’s prison next door, inmates form bands, rehearse, perform yard shows, and teach each other to play instruments. At LCIW, there is only one sponsored church choir. There are a few guitars and a keyboard used for church services but the administration does not create opportunities for teaching instruments, citing a lack of funding, space, and available personnel needed for supervision. One woman can play the guitar. Despite these obstacles, music is everywhere on the compound—on the yard, the line crews in the fields, the landscaping crews, in the garment factory, in the dorms, and in the lockdown cells. Most of the music making at LCIW consists of singing and rapping.
These women bring few resources with them to prison, but music as a practice, a skill, and a means for negotiating relationships with others becomes a critical tool for many. This article will show that music can provide opportunities for gaining a sense of the self (the personal), managing social relationships (the private), and making meaningful sense of the population there (the polis). An examination of musical experiences in the prison choir and, in some cases, outside of the choir illuminates many of the issues found “in population”—where the women have relative freedom to interact but little freedom from interaction. Throughout, I will show how these issues are particular to women prisoners.
I visited three Louisiana prisons between April 2008 and April 2012 for my documentary film about music in those prisons. During those visits I was able to collect six hours of uncut video footage and an additional five hours of audio recording at LCIW, including twenty-four interviews with inmates and staff. The interviews focus on prison experiences, musical experiences, and ways that the two intersect. The video footage also documents musical performances and the daily lives of the women at LCIW. The majority of inmates represented in my research are involved with the LCIW Choir, the only official musical group on the compound. Through choir members and correctional officers, I met a number of other women who sing on their own or in informal groups. Prison staff was present for less than a third of the recordings.
There is a double invisibility of women in prison, both of reality and representation. Images of prison are prevalent in our media to the point of trope. These depictions are often markedly different from reality, obscuring the actual experience of the more than 2.2 million Americans who are currently incarcerated. What doubles women’s invisibility is that most media images are of men—to the degree that when we think of a prisoner, he is male. In reality, over 200,000 women are in US prisons or jails. Due in part to this relatively small number, prison scholarship and prison policies also primarily focus on male inmates.
The analysis that runs throughout this article incorporates detailed attention to gender. It is helpful, however, to take a moment to understand general issues related to female incarceration. Unique critical issues emerge when considering female inmates. We must consider gender at two levels: first, how female prisoners experience prison as women, and second, how women’s prisons operate distinctly from men’s prisons. These differences have bearing on the ways in which music is practiced...