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Benjamin J. Harbert

A term that refers to both music made by inmates and media representations of music in prisons. Although almost any genre outside the walls has found its way into prison, overrepresentation of certain groups—especially African Americans and men—has influenced the types of music brought to and cultivated in prison. Furthermore, institutional policies have both limited and directed musical activity. Inmates have created and adapted music for a multitude of uses of their own, be it to temporarily escape, form communities, communicate, or contemplate the carceral experience. These uses have also affected the types of music and lyrical themes found in prison. Outside the walls, movies, television, and popular music have often developed narratives or characters, drawing upon and perpetuating stereotypes of prisoners and music making.

Early American prisons instituted solitary confinement and enforced silence. That silence—at least in the literature—broke after the Civil War. Documentation of music in prisons in newspapers, trade journals, folk-song collections, and scholarly works reveals unconnected musical activities sequestered in countless institutions. The mention of music in prisons, however, confirms that American prisoners have been prolific. Music-making in prisons has fallen into three general categories: religious music, work songs, and music programs....