Chris Brown, Sarah Harmer, Luther Wright Make Album with 30 Prisoners

By Kim Hughes 8/18/14 |

Musicians Chris Brown and Sarah McDermott outside the Kingston Penitentiary — photo credit: Kristen Ritchie.
What does the rehabilitation of incarcerated people look like? Is it hard labour? Intensive counseling and soul-searching? Career training for eventual life on the outside? Chris Brown thinks he has a partial answer: prisoner rehabilitation looks a lot like making a record, which happens to incorporate all the above and plenty more.

Brown is an acclaimed musician and producer (Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Barenaked Ladies, Chris Brown and Kate Fenner) who splits his time between New York City and Wolfe Island in the Saint Lawrence River near the Ontario prison town of Kingston.

He is also the force behind Postcards from the County, a just-released album of folk, R&B and gospel songs recorded entirely behind bars with inmates at Pittsburgh Institute and a cast of fellow musicians including Fenner, Sarah Harmer, Luther Wright, Sarah McDermott (Openhearts Society) and Pete Bowers (Gertrudes).

Presented under the aegis of Brown’s Pros and Cons program, which strives to assist prisoners through mentorship and constructive hands-on work — something that used to happen under the prison farm program the Conservative government dismantled in 2010 — Postcards from the County finds inmates and musicians tackling a range of covers and originals, many touching on themes of redemption.

“The culture of prisons is dominant in this area,” Brown tells Samaritanmag from his Wolfe Island studio, explaining his impetus for the project. “I have always applied music to social justice. And I knew if I was going to contribute to my environment here, it would be this way.”

All of the 30-odd prisoners involved — who served as songwriters, backing singers, gear techs and so on — appear anonymously out of “respect for the victims,” Brown says. The album is free to download and was made on a strictly volunteer basis.

Any proceeds raised (such as airplay royalties) are being directed to one of three inmate-selected charities, including Candace House which assists victims of crime and was founded by the mother of a murdered girl; the Kingston Food Bank; and Joe's M.I.L.L., the Joe Chithalen Memorial Musical Instrument Lending Library. But in some ways, that’s just so much detail.

The real takeaway, Brown insists, is this: prisoners who are engaged, involved and emotionally invested in something positive and affirming have a better chance of succeeding as law-abiding citizens on the outside where most will eventually land, many in his Kingston backyard.

“It’s in all of our best interests to have proper social programming in prisons,” Brown says. “As Sister Helen Prejean, the woman the movie Dead Man Walking is based on once said: you don’t define a person by the worst thing they have ever done. If that were the case, none of us could get out of bed in the morning.

“So yes, dangerous offenders must be kept where they aren’t going to harm other people. But what happens in that place is very important to all of us in society because most people in prison are going to be released.”

Brown admits convicted murderers and sex offenders were among those featured on Postcards from the County. As such, he braced for a public backlash along the lines of ‘those scumbags aren’t deserving of any fun,’ which so far hasn’t materialized apart from some negative reader comments posted online following a Toronto Star story about the record.

Musicians Chris Brown and Sarah McDermott pose outside the Kingston Penitentiary — photo credit: Kristen Ritchie.
Brown remains firm in his belief that genuine, meaningful rehabilitation can only occur in the context of positive reinforcement and a constructive use of remorse. And he insists he saw plenty of that throughout the rehearsing and recording process, which began in 2011 after a chance encounter with Kate Johnson, then the chaplain at Kingston’s Pittsburgh Institution, where Postcards from the County was cut in the penitentiary’s chapel.

“After meeting Kate, I started going into the prison each week. I’d never been in a federal penitentiary before and didn’t know what to expect. But I talked with the prisoners about music, I sang a couple of songs and then I asked them to sing for me, and we’d learn songs together. Then inmates started bringing forth writing they had done and wanted to see in song format.

“As it happened, there was an effort called the Kingston Community Songbook where area artists were asked to do collaborations with school kids or the Kingston Symphony. I chose inmates.  So we recorded the song, ‘My Oblivion.’ That was the first time I had set up recording gear in the prison chapel.”

Brown continues: “When I came back the next week, not only had the inmates learned their parts, they had written an entire counterpoint melody and lyrics to the original lyrics. It blew me away and I understood there was a lot of energy in there that needed to be harnessed and directed in a positive way.

“I started bringing in gear every week, teaching them, and we began tracking.  Then I got clearance for other artists to come in and invariably, when the guys knew someone was coming in, they would learn their songs.

“Eventually we had all this material assembled. And every single note was recorded in prison. We had to do everything within an allotted four-hour space: set up, record, scrutinize and then tear down. So the guys got very efficient at it. I was technically producing the record, but I would leave it to the inmates to determine when something was done.”

That included the final track selection featuring songs written by inmates (though listed anonymously) plus covers from Paul Simon and Canadian Melwood Cutlery and originals from the guest musicians contributing on-site. “Basically, we went with whatever the guys were really feeling,” Brown says. “And we tried to be as inclusive as possible.”

Sarah McDermott is one of the musicians who journeyed inside Pittsburgh Institution to record with the inmates. A Wolfe Island neighbor of Brown’s and a long-time friend (the pair also collaborates in the band Openhearts Society), McDermott shares Brown’s belief in restorative justice, which focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.

“We need to be accessing the emotions, the compassion and sympathy of incarcerated people in order to rehabilitate them. And we need to help build their confidence and self-esteem so that when they rejoin society, they can actually be a part of it,” McDermott tells Samaritanmag, adding that her five-hour session inside the prison’s chapel last fall was one of those extraordinary moments when time seemed to at once stand still and fly by.

She adds: “Everyone is so distracted these days but these guys were so present and focused. And really gentle. That was one of my parting impressions. This was one of the best human interaction experiences I’ve had in a very long time. It was all about the music and you could see that in everyone there. It was really something. And very touching.”

Brown says he has considered rolling the Pros and Cons program out nationally, and confirms he has met with his local MP Ted Hsu “to discuss what this program might look like. But in prison it seems that everything bad gets rewarded and everything good gets punished.

“I had a meeting with a guy who was paroled and he insisted I keep the program going,” Brown says. “He told me about one inmate – let’s call him Dave – and he said before I arrived Dave hadn’t come out of his cell for 18 months. Yet Dave became the most enthusiastic, talented, exponentially growing participant in the project.

“The parolee told me what we had done with music became a kind of blueprint for what he needed to do with his life. For people to actually care about something and make themselves vulnerable to that, it really is transformative.”

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