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People in prison explain what music means to them — and how they access it

Many states have introduced tablets into prisons, allowing users to do things like listen to music and send messages. Several incarcerated people told NPR that while the devices aren't perfect, the ability to stream music has been a game-changer.
Sarah Gonzales for NPR
Many states have introduced tablets into prisons, allowing users to do things like listen to music and send messages. Several incarcerated people told NPR that while the devices aren't perfect, the ability to stream music has been a game-changer.

Joe Garcia first heard about Taylor Swift in the late 2000's, while he was in the Los Angeles County jail awaiting trial on murder charges. He initially wasn't impressed with her music.

Now, multiple albums and prison transfers later, he credits Swift's music with helping him get through his life sentence.

"Taylor Swift's voice, the fairytale romance of it all, takes me back to a much more idyllic time and kind of keeps me focused on recapturing that type of sentiment as I go forward in life," said Garcia, who was convicted of murder and is eligible for a parole hearing, which is tentatively scheduled for April.

Garcia — who counts "White Horse," "The Man" and "...Ready for it?" among his top five — detailed his journey into Swiftdom in an essay that was published in the New Yorker last fall in collaboration with the Prison Journalism Project (PJP), a nonprofit organization that trains and publishes incarcerated writers.

The piece describes the impact of Swift's music on his life — including his rekindled relationship with the woman he describes as his "sweetheart" — and the often-complicated logistics of accessing music behind bars over the years.

It has since been shared widely on social media, where many users wrote that it brought them to tears.

Garcia, who is now at High Desert State Prison in California, told NPR that even though he wasn't able to follow the reaction in real time, he's been moved to hear that his essay (one of many he's published through PJP) resonated with so many people.

"In a lot of ways, I'm a normal human being with all kinds of emotions and heartache and depression ... just like anybody who's not in prison," he told Morning Edition in a phone interview. "And so I'm always trying to figure out a way to communicate that type of empathy, I guess, and get people on the outside to understand what it's like in here."

Joe Garcia wrote about his experience listening to Taylor Swift in prison in a <em>New Yorker</em> essay that went viral in September.
/ Courtesy of Prison Journalism Project and Joe Garcia
/
Courtesy of Prison Journalism Project and Joe Garcia
Joe Garcia wrote about his experience listening to Taylor Swift in prison in a New Yorker essay that went viral in September.

Garcia hoped that centering Swift, one of the most beloved and influential musicians working today, would be a relatable way to get that point across.

And while he can (and did) speak at length about his favorite eras, his piece shines a spotlight on a much broader topic: the mechanics, and meaning, of music in prison.

How people get access to music in prison

Garcia's story illustrates some of the challenges that incarcerated people have faced in accessing music — and how new technology has made it possible for many to listen to songs and artists of their choice, some for the first time in years.

His essay details how he navigated ever-changing sets of rules and social dynamics to listen to music in various prisons over more than a decade.

That journey included shared CD players, a borrowed pocket radio, a reconfigured "old-school boombox," an MP3 player paid for by his family and, most recently, a tablet.

Dozens of states have made tablets available — either for free or for sale — to prisoners in recent years, starting with Colorado in 2016. Almost all people incarcerated in California, where Garcia resides, now have them. And the companies behind the tablets said they had roughly one million users nationwide as of late last year.

"We are given a free tablet that is assigned to us by the state," Garcia explained. "And then there's a whole bunch of services that are either free or we have to pay for."

Users can pay money to send messages, make video calls, play games, download books and stream music, among other functions.

There are still limits around consuming music, as incarcerated people told NPR. Songs cost money and tablets are in many cases only allowed during certain hours of the day. And the streaming services they come with don't all let users do things like play an artist's entire discography or curate a personalized playlist — as opposed to saving existing playlists.

Even so, they say, the technology makes a big difference in their day-to-day lives.

"Music is just a huge, tremendous factor in here," Garcia said. "All throughout my everyday day to day, you see guys walking around with headphones on, with earbuds in. They'll be singing along to whatever they're listening to, they'll be reciting their own type of rap lyrics, they'll be in circles comparing things."

Not everyone is listening to the same songs, of course.

A Spotify playlist of the dozens of songs PJP writers said meant the most to them in 2023 includes artists as varied as Smokey Robinson, Carrie Underwood, Kendrick Lamar, John Lennon and Miley Cyrus (and also Swift).

Music as a means of relief and connection

Several people at prisons across the country told NPR that music makes them feel connected, both to others and the outside world.

Jeffery Shockley, who is 24 years into serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania for murder, says music offers some relief from the "mundane monotony" of prison. That's especially true when you're not limited by what radio stations are nearby and which songs they decide to play, he adds.

Jeffrey Shockley, who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania, says he listens to everything from Beethoven to Eminem.
/ Courtesy of Prison Journalism Project and Jeffrey Shockley
/
Courtesy of Prison Journalism Project and Jeffrey Shockley
Jeffery Shockley, who is serving a life sentence in Pennsylvania, says he listens to everything from Beethoven to Eminem.

Shockley estimates he has more than a thousand songs on his tablet, ranging from Christian music to classical to Eminem. He says being able to choose what he wants to hear throughout the day — like reggae on a happy morning or Beethoven before bed — has a huge impact on his mood.

"It's being able to have that ability to reach out and hear something different that will catapult you out of whatever depths of hell you may be in in that moment, figuratively speaking," he added.

Plus, Shockley said, listening to different genres gives him more to talk about with different types of people.

Garcia similarly says music is one of the few mediums — along with sports and news — that people in prison can share, regardless of their race or background. He says music helps him connect with others, even as someone who was admittedly somewhat antisocial before prison.

"Music is kind of one facet of me trying to open my heart and really appreciate people for who they are," he added. "And I really do see that a lot in the other incarcerated guys ... We end up using it as a platform to come together instead of being divisive."

Garcia said music not only helps him connect with other people, but also with the outside world. He's spent his whole life paying attention to new music — which is why he's now listening to Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo at age 54.

"I don't want to lose track of what the world is like," he added.

Reflecting on the past and looking to the future

Music can bring back powerful memories and provide a source of hope for the future, incarcerated people say.

Shockley, 61, says hearing the music his grandmother raised him on, like gospel and Aretha Franklin, reminds him both of his family and simpler times.

"[Like] when you're a young boy and you're doing things and running around, playing in the backyard in the green grass," he explained. "And now you're sitting in a concrete jungle and hoping for a breath of fresh air .. It's like a tranquil moment that some people may take for granted because when you don't have it, you miss it."

That music, he adds, inspires him to try to give back and uplift others as he was taught — but admittedly struggled to do — when he was younger.

"I don't want to be who I was," he said. "So I'm going to be who I can be or should have been."

KC Johnson, who is incarcerated in North Carolina, described their tablet as a "lifesaver."

They got it in 2021, just two months before their mom died. The two shared a love of blues, and Johnson was especially grateful to be able to listen to music that reminded them of her.

KC Johnson, whose release date is in three years, looks forward to going to concerts for the first time in over two decades.
/ Courtesy of Prison Journalism Project and KC Johnson
/
Courtesy of Prison Journalism Project and KC Johnson
KC Johnson, whose release date is in three years, looks forward to going to concerts for the first time in over two decades.

Johnson, who was convicted of robbery and second-degree murder, said music — especially concerts — was a huge part of their life before they went to prison some 17 years ago.

Now they listen to music pretty much all day: on their tablet while studying, with a portable radio while running or over the speakers at their work-release job at a local food bank (notably the only time they don't need headphones).

"That's where all my money goes," said Johnson, 45. "It's for my tablet, for my music."

Johnson's projected release date is in late 2026, at which point they are planning to move into a halfway house. They are especially excited that the facility allows MP3 players, which will hopefully mean easier access to artists on demand, including on runs.

Johnson is also looking forward to seeing live music again, for the first time in over two decades. Going to a festival is at the top of their to-do list. They say they've always loved the positive energy at concerts, where everyone is there for the same reason and getting along.

"I just want to get back in that atmosphere," Johnson said. "So much has changed in the world, but I feel like going to something like that, it will still be like it was when I was younger — or I hope it is."

Johnson sees music as a way to reconnect with their past self — and expects the same will be true even once they're out of prison.

"The songs that I've listened to and hear will remind me of my strength and endurance and everything that got me through," they said. "It's a powerful tool, music is."

The broadcast piece was produced by Mansee Khurana.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 2, 2024 at 11:00 PM CST
A previous version of this story misspelled Jeffery Shockley's first name.
Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
Mansee Khurana