The borough of Queens is home to New York’s La Guardia airport, which is for tourists and locals alike a key entryway into the City That Never Sleeps; a place famous for its skyscrapers, performing arts, diversity and big business. It is also home to Rikers Island; its inmates tell stories of watching the Empire State Building change colour whilst in solitary confinement and the constant drone of planes flying overhead, its occupants blissfully unware that they are just a stone throw away from one of the world’s largest and most notorious prison complexes.
Rikers Island spans 400 acres on the East River, made up of ten jails which hold an average daily population of over 10,000 people, and almost 100,000 in a given year. But over 80% of its inmates have not actually yet been convicted of a crime – it’s a place of limbo, a penal colony for those who can’t afford to post bail or are remanded to custody. Since the 1990s during New York City’s biggest drug epidemic, it has become a place synonymous with extreme violence; of gangs controlling blocks, of ‘fight clubs’ where corrections officers bet on inmates, and where in 2015 a young man named Kalief Browder committed suicide after being held in Rikers Island for over three years without being charged for allegedly stealing a backpack.
But what many don’t know is that Rikers Island has a rich heritage of Hip Hop stars who have done time within its walls; Notorious B.I.G, Slick Rick, Tupac and Little Wayne have all cited their experience in Rikers as having a great influence in their music. The recent BBC podcast “Beats, Rhymes and Justice” sheds light on efforts to capitalize on this association and change the perception of Rikers through a unique programme of the same name cultivated by the combined efforts of music production company Audio Pictures and Colombia University. The programme is designed to educate inmates on all levels of music production by bringing in all of the gear you would find in a regular recording studio right into the prison itself, teaching the process from beginning to end and helping the directionless find their voice.
“It’s not about helping people ‘make it’ in the music industry, but building confidence and exposing inmates to a healthier way of expressing themselves.”
Audio Pictures co-owner Ryan Burvick believes that Hip Hop music and its culture can be channelled as a cathartic process to help those incarcerated heal from past traumas and confront how they will face the future on the ‘outside ‘. It’s not so much about helping people ‘make it’ in the music industry, but to reduce the repeat offending by building confidence and exposing inmates to a healthier way of expressing themselves. Moreover, it gives them concrete skills with software, writing skills and critical thinking which could make all the difference when they search for jobs on the other side.
What the podcast most importantly draws attention to are the underlying structural inequalities which make the programme so significant; The US is one of the most incarcerated countries in the world and this disproportionately affects people of colour, especially young African American or Latino men. Those who are from low-income neighbourhoods are much less likely to have access to after-school programs where they might find some direction, and are therefore much more likely to fall into crime. As Burvick explains throughout, hip hop has long held a strong place within urban culture because it is a product of its environment, meaning that its rehabilitative potential is massive. This begs the question: if such programs could be accessed earlier, could this prevent crimes from being committed at all? If the funding was available, the podcast and the voices of inmates on the program certainly suggests that it could, providing a refreshing new take on the age-old problem of criminal reform.