Gathering Spaces: Prisoners Gather for Music at Oakhill


By Anne Helke | February 20, 2015

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The Music Room at Oakhill Correctional Institution is a pretty remarkable space. Here, within the walls of a small classroom, you will find a piano, a variety of guitars, a drum set, horns, keyboards, a saxophone or two, and, depending on the time of day, seven or eight inmates practicing their instruments. These musical instruments and experienced instructors (who are also inmates) are made available as part of a variety of “recreational”programs offered at Oakhill that include art classes, ceramic materials, book discussion groups, a basketball court, and others.

When thinking about what daily life is like for prisoners,the idea of recreation doesn’t immediately come to mind. For some, it presents a problem. The reality of life in prison, however, means that there is a lot of down time. And, as the proverb goes, “idle hands are the Devil’s playground.” How you choose to spend your time goes a long way towards shaping the kind of life you lead. As one inmate observed, “when you’ve got nothing but time on your hands, you might as well use it wisely.”

Playing music, like art, reading, or playing sports takes skill. Doing it well requires discipline. Being heard requires collaboration. For inmates who come to the Music Room, the craft they practice here goes a long way towards shaping the kind of life they hope to live beyond the walls of that room.

Hear all of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” performed by prisoners at Oakhill.

Anne Helke

Anne Helke is the online content producer for the “Wisconsin Life” project who grew up on a lone draft horse farm in the midst of dairy farms in north-central Wisconsin, which was great until she realized you can’t get string cheese from draft horses. 
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