Research shows that music benefits our mental and physical health in numerous ways, Music has been found to help cancer patients communicate their feelings, manage stress and ease physical pain and discomfort. It can also reduce anxiety and improve the quality of life. Given these simple facts, doing a music performance at a prison seems like a really good idea.
As a young boy growing up in southern Michigan, USA, I can remember passing a hulking old building that we fondly dubbed as “Frankenstein’s Castle”. It was the Jackson State Prison. Back in the day, it was the largest prison in the world, had a notorious history of violence, gangs and escape. In fact the 1954 Hollywood film, “Riot in Cell Block 11 is based on the Jackson Prison riot. Ironically, the original buildings from the 1842 site are now used as residential apartments, art galleries and even a bicycle cooperative!
Perhaps more interestingly, my grandfather, Dr. John W. Speck was the Jackson State Prison doctor from the 1930’s to the mid 40’s. By the time I was born he had long passed away at the young age of 42. However, as a young lad driving by the prison with my Father he would point out one of the huge steel doors and casually mention “I used to enter that gate and get my haircut” or when his parents (my Grandparents) went on an extended winter trip to Florida I asked who looked after him and his young siblings, and again he would casually mention, “Oh some of the prisoners would come over and cook for us and take care of the house”.
Those stories stayed with me. This was a time before the concept of a “Halfway House” for prisoners was established. [A ‘Halfway House is defined as a centre for rehabilitating former prisoners, psychiatric patients, or others unused to non-institutional life.] Back then the prisoners were left to fend for themselves and depend on basic human kindness just to survive. From the stories told to me about my Grandfather, a prison doctor, and those early humanitarian efforts to treat not only their physical needs, but also to assist them in their efforts to reintegrate into society, I am inspired to put on a music performance at the Prey Sar Prison here in Cambodia.
Fortunately I am blessed to have good friends (and fantastic musicians as well!) accompany me along this journey. The Hensley trio consists of Marianna Hensley, Joe Wrigley and myself. Additionally, the always fabulous Miss Sarawan (Mealea Lay), a native Cambodian, will bring Khmer songs and we will back her. The performance will be early in the morning at the Women’s Ward, Low Risk Offenders and as we understand it, their children live with them at the prison.
We thank the OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), particularly Ms. Hanae Hanzawa for her/their assistance to make this happen. We will be following the UN guidelines in regards to conduct and arrive with a UN convoy. Additional thanks to Steve Porte, well-known photographer of the music scene here in Cambodia and abroad. Considering that the rules forbade photography inside the prison and Steve will have to wait in the van outside the prison during the performance we are thrilled to have him in on board to document what he can. Champion!
Finally, this music performance is completely non-political and non-religious.