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Just eight classes into a music education course at Cook County Jail, inmate D’Andre 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 jail’s medium-maximum Division 11.
Long interested in songwriting and music production, Morris said he’s 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, who’s spent more than a year behind bars awaiting trial on an attempted murder charge, said he’s grateful to be learning the technical aspects of sound engineering, even if he regrets that it took a stint in jail for this opportunity.
“It’s a blessing,” 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 Ablan’s gentle instruction, four other young men — also dressed in the tan jail jumpsuit and from different parts of the Chicago area — sat in a semicircle behind them. They laughed and chatted about their new song titled “Choices,” 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.
“Something like this (doesn’t) happen” Morris said. “It’s 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 that’s fun. It’s pretty cool and a great experience.”
Anteaus Miller, 36, holds lyrics for a song produced with music director Antony Ablan during a class with inmates at the Cook County Jail in Chicago on June 19, 2018. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)
Ablan’s studio isn’t 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 Ablan’s efforts — Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart among them — 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.
“When you look at every study that’s ever been done, it all comes back to the same thing,” said Dart, who OK’d Ablan’s proposal. “If you give people opportunities for legitimate jobs and careers, they more likely than other folks will avoid the criminal justice system.”
The basement studio is next to a state-of-the-art kitchen and art studio all set up by Chef Bruno Abate, whose “Recipe for Change” 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.
“At the end of the day, what we all want is that you guys don’t come back here,” 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, Ablan’s program could grow to include female detainees. Currently, he’s hoping to gather other music professionals to volunteer their time to mentor his students. “I’d like for this to be the best music program in the country. Never mind that it’s in a jail,” he said.
Inmates interested in Ablan’s 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 didn’t 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 Drumpf 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.
“Many of the people here have talents, but they don’t have a tangible way to get there. We’re also teaching life skills at this class,” he said.