Stories From Cell Block 7: Music in Prisons

Originally appeared in the Cell Block 7 email newsletter

Finding some sort of happiness while serving time in prison is not an easy task. Some prisoners use art, reading or a prison job as ways to find happiness throughout their day.  In addition to those things, music is also a way to find solace and joy in a place seriously lacking in both.

The State Prison of Jackson has had prisoners who are musicians, as well as concerts held for the prisoners. 

Some inmates who were musicians just play for fun, but one in particular got to work on his music while serving time. Mann Lewis Jr., a songwriter, singer and pianist recorded and released an entire album on the sly while locked up in the Southern Michigan Prison.  He was the only inmate ever to accomplish this. The album was titled “I’m Gonna Reach My Goal” and billed as “Record Live at the Jackson Prison Auditorium”.  The album was released in 1986. Lewis was never shy about his talent, saying that if he had been out in the world at the time, the sound would have been hotter than Michael Jackson or Prince.

In March of 1981, blues legend B.B. King and his 10-piece band performed two concerts at Jackson Prison. About 3,000 maximum-security inmates attended performances. This marked King’s 38th prison performance in the ten years since he and attorney F. Lee Bailey formed the Foundation for the Advancement of Inmate Rehabilitation and Recreation in 1971. The foundation pushed for improved prison conditions and put on shows for inmates across the country. For his work, the Federal Bureau of Prisons honored King with a Humanitarian Award in 1972. King often said that he was very aware of the likelihood that someone like him could easily wind up in prison. King considered many of prison concerts to be some of his greatest performances.

Visit Cell Block 7 Prison Museum to learn more!

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