The Faces of Music on the Inside

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

“We shall overcome. We shall overcome. We shall overcome, some day….” This song always tears on the heartstrings, no matter who is singing it. But when it’s sung by musicians inside a maximum security prison, desperate for a taste of freedom and a link to the outside world, it becomes plaintive beyond words.

We’ve both spent many years working on issues related to mass incarceration. But recently, we worked for only the second time inside a prison. We were invited to join a program called Songs in the Key of Free, which is conducting a series of workshops at State Correctional Institute-Graterford, about 45 minutes outside Philadelphia. Philadelphia-based musicians, some from the Curtis Institute, are working with musicians at Graterford on improvisational songwriting and musical performances inside the prison. Later, the songs will also be performed in a public concert in Philadelphia, and our job will be to represent the men on the inside through a multimedia presentation.

One of the imperatives in working on incarceration is to represent the humanity of those who are incarcerated, since the criminal justice system does so much to deny them their dignity and individuality. But this is made more difficult by prison regulations that forbid showing the men’s faces. Our task becomes that much harder, and we have to use a variety of unusual techniques to capture their warmth, humanity, and encompassing love of music.

Songs in the Key of Free is focused in part on the healing power of telling stories in song. As visual storytellers, we are honored to be a part of the team that is helping participants use the power of their stories to transform and heal their lives. We’ve witnessed firsthand the enormous potential of those who have made mistakes to make a fresh start and bring talent, skill, and passion to helping others.

Here is a first glimpse at some still images from our work with Songs in the Key of Free, which will also rely heavily on video. We’ll have more work to share soon, since we travel to Graterford again in early March. We welcome your feedback.