The Soundtrack to My (Prison) Life

Alex Cavendish on the soothing qualities of music in a prison environment. Alex Cavendish is an author and academic: a social anthropologist, former prisoner and an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation. He blogs at Prison UK: An Insider's View.

Having blogged about the books that helped get me through my time in prison, I thought that I’d share some thoughts on the music that kept me going inside, especially when things were particularly grim. Some tracks are included in the list because they were played regularly when I was a con; others because they had a special meaning to me personally. I suppose that you could call this selection a soundtrack to my prison life.

CDs: prison listening
Music plays an important role in the lives of many prisoners as it can provide emotional comfort, mental escape from confinement and – when using earphones – create a much-needed refuge of personal space within what can be a very noisy communal living area, especially when there are two or even three adult men sharing a tiny concrete cell. Some lucky prisoners still have guitars, although new rules introduced in 2013 have made it much more difficult for inmates to purchase musical instruments.

Even those who don’t possess a radio or CD player can still listen in via the rented in-cell TV. Of course, iPods and other MP3 devices are banned by law from prisons, so other than CDs and old cassette tapes the choice of medium for playing music is very limited. There are also strict limits set on the number of CDs that any inmate can have in possession at any one time and loaning them to other cons, which of course does go on all the time, is a breach of prison rules and can get you put on report.

So here is my personal list.

1. Last Stand (Harry Chapin) 

Harry Chapin
Maybe an unconventional choice from the late US performer who is better known for his hit Cat’s in the Cradle, but Last Stand is the song I listened to every day in the run up to my trial and then every night after the hearing adjourned for the day. It’s a song about coping with defeat and disaster in pretty much all its forms.

Every criminal trial is a terrifying experience, so Chapin’s line that runs “you try to find some courage on your knees” struck me as being particularly apt. There is one verse above all other that I think sums up the sensation of standing in the dock as the jury delivers its verdict:

Take your look around the top,
For now you face the final drop.
You’ll go down fast and you won’t stop,
You found a very deep hole.

And thus it was. I didn’t get to hear Last Stand again for a couple of years. I never invested in a CD player and it didn’t get played on the radio while I was listening, but since I knew every verse by heart that song probably did more to help me find the courage to face the worst that the prison system could throw at me than almost anything else during my time in jail. When I finally went home for the first time on temporary release it was the first song I listened to on my iPod.

For many prisoners, being sent down – particularly for a long stretch – is the beginning of the end. I’ve seen so many casualties inside whose lives have effectively been ended by addictions, uncontrolled tempers, mental illnesses. For them, Chapin’s lyrics have a special relevance:

You watched as the last light
Went out there in your soul.

Walk around the wings of any prison and, believe me, you’ll find plenty of men – some of them barely out of their teens – from whom the last light in their lives really has gone out. It can be very frightening to witness.

2. Friday Mourning (Morrissey)

Morrissey: Friday Mourning
No list of songs relevant to the prison experience would be complete without at least one from Morrissey. Again, this is a number that meant a lot to me in the run up to the trial. I well remember pounding on a treadmill in a local gym trying to keep fit in the 14 months I was on bail listening to this and other similarly grim tracks from the master of dark and depressing lyrics.

In this case, his description of condemnation from family, friends, colleagues and wider society fits perfectly with the experience of many prisoners, whether innocent or guilty.

And when they haul me down the hall
And when they kick me down the stairs
I see the faces all lined up before me
Of teachers and of parents and bosses
Who all share a point of view
“You are a loser”
“You are a loser”.

Some prisoners have already spent most of their lives being kicked down the stairs (sometimes literally) and a majority have probably already been written off as “losers” long before they got through the prison gate. Self-esteem is not something that the experience of incarceration does much to build and when you have nothing to lose...

3. Payphone (Maroon 5)

Maroon 5: Payphone
Funnily enough, this song embedded itself into my prison experience as it topped the charts while I was inside. The main reason it became so relevant was not because of the accompanying music video in which Adam Levine transforms from a bored bank clerk via an armed robbery into a fugitive engaged in a dramatic police pursuit, but because so many cons used to sing or whistle the tune while standing in the long queues to use the wing payphones!

I’m at a payphone trying to call home
All of my change I spent on you.

Imagine 20 or so cons leaning against a long corridor wall all waiting to get their ten minutes on the payphones singing this chorus, more or less in tune, to the bemusement of the wing screws. Moments of humour like that aren’t common in prison, but they do occur and that was one of them.

4. I Shall be Released (The Band)
The Band: I Shall be Released

This is not just a song, it’s more a state of mind. I much prefer the 1968 release by The Band to Bob Dylan’s own solo version. This is one of the most famous prison-themed songs of all time and for me it has a timeless quality.

It deals with the psychology of loss and confinement, as well as addressing in the final verse the plight of the wrongly convicted who find themselves trapped unjustly within an uncomprehending system. For those people, the lines “So I remember every face, Of every man who put me here” are particularly poignant.

It is also, above all, a song that focuses on hope and the prospect of eventual release that is in the mind of just about every prisoner, even if the likelihood is remote. I spent many, many hours looking at the high walls surrounding Cat-B and Cat-C prisons while imagining how everyday life was going on just over the other side. Occasionally, from upper landings, you could glimpse the world over the walls and I know cons who could spend hours each day just looking between the bars of their cell windows dreaming about the day when they would be released. Some probably never will be.

5. Reflections of My Life (The Marmalade)
The Marmalade: Reflection of My Life

This is a song from the 1960s by the Scottish band The Marmalade about a longing for a return to the old familiar past and, above all, a deep desire to get back home, a feeling that is familiar to every prisoner and person held captive. For many inmates thoughts of home – even of a home that is long gone – sustains them across the years inside. They live on their memories of happier times and of the love of family:

All my sorrow, sad tomorrow
Take me back to my old home.

Of course, the reality for a great many prisoners is that there is nothing left on the other side of the wall. Families have split up and moved on or loved ones have died. There is no ‘old home’ to go back to, so they have to make do with fading memories. When the day of release finally arrives it can prove to be both a big shock, as well as a sad disappointment.

So what keeps prisoners going, especially when sentences stretch into decades? Sometimes it’s hope and for others it can be fear of the unknown:

The world is a bad place, a bad place
A terrible place to live, oh but I don’t wanna die.

Hope of any kind can keep people going no matter how terrible their situation – and this is true of many who are facing crisis outside of prisons – but once all hope is lost, that’s when the balance can tip and death can come to be seen as offering a welcome release. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the suicide rate is climbing once more in our prisons.

6. The Needle and the Damage Done (Neil Young)
Neil Young

This 1972 song is Neil Young’s reflections on the scourge of heroin addiction – a very relevant issue in our prisons where wings are awash with every kind of drug, legal and illegal. Many prisoners are serving sentences that are directly linked to crimes committed in order to obtain drugs and you can often see the way these substances have ravaged their bodies and minds. Youngsters in their 20s look like old men, frail and toothless as they totter down prison wings.

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.

Although Young’s lyrics were inspired by his own experiences of seeing friends, band members and other musicians of his generation destroyed by heroin, they also mean something special to anyone who has witnessed this nightmare at close quarters. And that is just as relevant to those who are the victims of drug-related crime, often including family members or neighbours of the person who is addicted.

When I was in an open prison in the last year of my sentence I attended a charity concert given in the prison chapel and one of my fellow cons did a Neil Young set, accompanying himself on the guitar. Like the original it was a stripped-down performance, although in this case the lyrics were being sung by a man who was serving a life sentence for terrible crimes committed under the influence of drugs. As he sang those lyrics, I looked around the chapel and could see for myself the truth of Young’s words.

7. Part of Me (Katy Perry)
Katy Perry: Part of Me

This is another song that hit the top of the charts when I was inside in 2012. It was wildly popular with most cons – probably due to the irresistible combination of Ms Perry and a music video that showed her playing with guns. However, I chose to see something a bit more meaningful in her lyrics within a prison setting.

Prison is all about de-personalisation and imposed uniformity. The experience of incarceration tends to dehumanise everyone involved in it, both inmates and members of staff and it can be a real struggle to retain ‘normal’ standards of humanity. So when Katy Perry sings:

This is the part of me
That you’re never gonna ever take away from me.

this can have a relevance to prison life, especially since the music video that accompanies the track shows her reacting to a failed relationship by enlisting in the military, going through basic army training and then preparing for combat. Prison inmates are given numbers, uniforms and have much of their former identity stripped away. The key issue is to what extent you manage to retain your essential humanity – the part of you that no-one is ever going to take away.

8. The Mercy Seat (Johnny Cash)
Johnny Cash

I doubt that it would be possible to compile a list of prison songs without including Johnny Cash, even though the nearest he ever really got to being in the slammer himself was the odd overnight in police cells for minor drink or drugs offences. He did, however, perform concerts for inmates at both Folsom Prison and San Quentin in the late 1960s.

I actually think that Cash’s version of The Mercy Seat is better than Nick Cave’s, but that’s personal choice. The song tells the powerful story of a man awaiting execution in the electric chair and, at various points in the lyrics, it seems as if he is actually welcoming death as a relief from “all this twistin’ of the truth”. He also asserts repeatedly that he is not afraid to die and that he is innocent of the crime for which he has been condemned, although there is a twist in the final verse where the lyrics suggest that he has been lying – although whether about his innocence, or his fear of dying, or both is never made clear.

The symbolism is heavy with religious imagery, particularly that of the Israelite Ark of the Covenant – sometimes known as the ‘mercy seat’ – that was kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Throughout the song, the Ark, which had to power to kill those who touched it without authorisation, is compared to the electric chair which does the same to the condemned man.

Long before I went to prison I appreciated this song because, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I used to write regularly to a prisoner on Death Row in Florida for several years prior to his execution (by means of lethal injection, rather than the electric chair). I’ve always been deeply opposed to the death penalty, so this number by Cash means something very personal to me.

There is a lesser known song recorded by Johnny Cash called The Wall and this deals with the death of a prisoner who according to the official report tried to escape, but in reality committed suicide by approaching the prison wall deliberately in order to be shot by the guards in the watchtower. I was torn between this and The Mercy Seat, so I decided to include it here anyway.

9. Sit Down (James)
James: Sit Down

This 1989 song by the Manchester band James always reminds me of the large number of prisoners I met inside who live with mental health problems – which is one of the main themes of this chart hit. As an Insider (peer mentor) I spent a lot of my time in jail sitting with fellow cons who were in distress or crisis, particularly those who were in desperate need of mental health care, but who were often simply ignored or even punished for their erratic behaviour.

Sometimes they shared their problems with me because there were occasions when it seemed that no-one else had any time for them. This role became more than a prison job for me, perhaps it was more of a vocation I suppose. However, it was rarely easy to share someone else’s dark night of the soul.

I’ll sing myself to sleep
A song from the darkest hour
Secrets I can’t keep
Inside of the day.

Some of the things that I was told by other inmates have had an enduring impact on me. Terrible stories of human depravity, often of crimes committed against them when they were young kids, including rape and other forms of abuse. Many had lived with these traumas for most of their lives and some weren’t coping very well or had used alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. Others were consumed with hatred and anger that could erupt into violence without warning, making them dangerous to themselves and those around them.

Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they’re touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me
Love, in fear, in hate, in tears.

And when listening to these adult men, some of whom remained small, frightened children inside, I experienced all of these emotions and more. It was both a privilege and a burden. I doubt that my life will ever be the same again.

10. Anthem (Leonard Cohen)
Leonard Cohen: Anthem

I’ve always enjoyed Leonard Cohen’s music, but I think that the particular song that came to mean a great deal to me while I was in prison was Anthem. It was also a great favourite of an old friend of mine who died very suddenly and unexpectedly last week. He was a great help and a source of comfort to me throughout my time inside and I’ll always associate this song with him.

The lyrics are all about the losses, griefs and betrayals of human life, yet the song also speaks of the possibility of redemption even in broken lives:

There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in. 

I’ve seen for myself how some very damaged and broken people in prison can still be capable of great acts of kindness and selflessness. It’s often their presence on a prison wing that can make the difference between life and self-inflicted death or injury among those around them.

Those readers who know me personally will also understand why these lyrics by Cohen are very relevant to me:

I can’t run no more 
with that lawless crowd 
while the killers in high places 
say their prayers out loud. 
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up 
a thundercloud 
and they’re going to hear from me. 

Sometimes you just have to do what is morally right even when the legal consequences can be devastating. Perhaps this blog is a small part of what ‘they’ are going to hear from me.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

3 comments to ''The Soundtrack to My (Prison) Life "

  1. Lovely piece of work and well done, i am certain i would have went insane even during my relatively short time inside without the company of music. I was doing an OU course and so was entitled to a tape recorder and got dozens of cassettes with the education material. I used them to meticulously record the 'River of Soul' show (Today FM) and the 'Last Splash' Indie/rock hour stuff with Alison Curtis on Sunday evenings during early lock up. Played on a Walkman in the yard, good music had the ability to transport you beyond the walls. The only drawback being that screws quickly identified your weak-point and knew what to confiscate first in the event of conflict with the system. I took scores of those cassettes out upon release and have them stashed somewhere, if i can find a tape player ill dig them out some day.,

  2. Before the Walkmans were allowed into the jail in 89, music had to be listened to on the radio or on a record player of which there was one to each wing. So it meant you were never in control of the music you listened to and had to wait ages to hear a song you might have liked.

    That changed with the Walkmans and a new dimension was added to jail life. I remember getting all Led Zeppelin's music and it very much took me beyond the walls. We could hear what we wanted when we wanted to.

    Rab Kerr introduced me to Mind Bomb by The The and The Cowboy Junkies Trinity Session, music I continue to listen to this very day

  3. Interesting comments on the use of the Walkman. I've known lifers who used to have access to MP3s as well.

    Now any kind of recording device - cassette recorders, MP3s, iPods etc - is strictly banned under the Prison Act, so nothing can be recorded. Also all self-made compilations on recordable CDs are prohibited (officially because of copyright rules) so these days it's original CDs or nothing in prisons.


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