Captive Audience

Prisoners Get Cultural Fix with 8-Tracks and Bootleg Cassettes

Inside the strange but innovative world of ancient media used inside the New York state prisons.

Andrew Aitchison/Corbis

Like the little flower that grows through concrete, every human being demonstrates their humanity — no matter how heinous theirpast is or how brutal their present — with a need for culture. You may not think Tyler Perry or the Three Six Mafia is culture in the way you perceive, but you can’t argue that it isn’t an honest attempt to create an artistic work. And there are consumers of art locked away in the deepest dungeons of the New York State prison system. How they get at it is as different story.

I had been a culture arbeiter myself, but heroin addiction took me from my desk at a literary agency to a robbery conviction to a cell in a Maximum Security prison. It took me 10 years to get back to the art-film houses I used to frequent.

American prisons allow their inmates much more access to culture than other systems have.When Stalin died in 1953 and millions were released from the Gulag, some of the zeks who had been in the farthest reaches of the North cheered. They already knew about Stalin expiring, as that was what the amnesty was for. No, they were cheering for the Russian victory in World War Two. No one had told them for eight years. In the prisons I was in, the news was regularly played except for when the man escaped a few years ago, killing some guards in the process. All the televisions were off for a few days then.

But, overall, culture in prison was easy for me. College radio is everywhere, so I could hear both Vampire Weekend and NPR at the flip of a switch. And most of the movies shown on the televisions in the yard were rentals of whatever Hollywood released on DVD that week. I had no trouble staying current. But for much of the prison population, their requirements for acceptable art are more difficult to satisfy. While I wouldn’t mind listening to an all-Bach station or watching the news on BBC, I can live without it. But existence without “urban music” is unthinkable for much of the incarcerated population. As important as books and film were to me, music is the media of choice for most of the guys inside. The problem is that the majority of prisons are located in areas where the local stations play either classic rock or country. Not acceptable.

As a result, prisoners collect, collate, trade and secretly alter cassette tapes of their desired sounds, which are rap and R&B. But prison is also where old media gets a new lease on life. For instance, when I first arrived, there were still prisoners who had 8-track players, from a brief window in the early ’80s when they were allowed in. Of course, the men were stuck listening to the same Teddy Pendergrass songs for decades, as there is no possibility of finding new music on 8-track. The machines themselves were lovingly maintained, the moving components oiled with margarine and the belts replaced with hand-cut rubber. These antiques had been passed down from inmate to inmate, as older prisoners died or moved on. Eventually a prisoner gets transferred with the device still in his property, and it is taken away during the pack-up process and destroyed with zeal by the correctional officers.

Cassette tapes, specifically finding them, are also a challenge. Just buying cassettes these days is hard. California, the other state with a huge prison culture, started letting CDs in about 10 years ago, and now jailhouse catalogues are awash with transparent CD players at inflated prices, even though they’re also an outdated technology. They’re transparent to allow prison officials to see into them and prevent smuggling, as are all permitted electronics.

These catalogues make a nice business of selling the unusual items that are allowed in by prisons; some are run by former prisoners who know the value of a cribbage board inside, while others do research into what kinds of food is permitted for prisoners to order through their accounts. The clear electronics that prisons demand are the biggest racket though, because most prisoners close their eyes to the magnified prices that a clear walkman goes for, just so that they can listen to their tunes.

In the New York State system, the CD is considered a dangerous weapon. The shards of one can be used to cut someone (never mind the constant availability of soup-can tops). So New York sticks to tape players. But in 2014, where on earth does one get tapes of the latest Weezy?

There are catalogues that sell albums on tape, probably bought from record company warehouses relieved to find a market for them, but the material isn’t new. Instead there’s is an outfit in Thailand, which will put any new album you request on a tape for you, add a label and pack it up to look legit, and mail it to you for $20 bucks plus shipping. I’m guessing it is run by expatriate ex-cons, because they know enough not to use tapes with screws, which are forbidden. The price is high, but the orders come in daily. Whether through a Walkman with headphones or the tinny speaker of a cheap and transparent clear tape player, the newest music of Wiz Khalifa and Drake rings through the halls of prison blocks. Thanks to Thailand.

Television, the other form of media allowed prisoners, is also contentious. Most prison yards have at least three televisions, designated for the black, latino and white population. But it’s BET that gets the most play. For those not in the know, that is Black Entertainment Television, which is a medley of music videos, sports highlights, and lots of films I’d never heard of. Belly? After a few experiments I learned that I could skip those movies, and Tyler Perry was anathema in my book. The difficulty came at moments when televisions were shared by mixed groups, like in a clinic waiting room. Since every prison featured BET to avoid accusations of racism and, possibly, riots, I was subjected to a fair amount of it and learned to always carry a magazine in my back pocket.

The prisons also showed films that they rented for the population. Sometimes they screened films which they themselves did not understand. Once, I was in a Maximum Security prison when Brüno was shown. I expected the talking penis to provoke hysteria and/or outrage among the population, which is homophobic as a whole, but they actually found it rather funny. I also saw a John Waters movie shown, which featured the Three Bears; largish gay men who lived as a “throuple.” I had to explain that one to the guys around me, who were shocked. Another time a Woody Allen film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, made the cut, and due to its sexy theme and the on-screen absence of the director, derided by the inmates as a “Jewbag,” the prisoners went with it.

Later on I became a bit of a censor myself. Once, I shared control over the film selection with a former journalist from the E! Channel. He had married a man, then impersonated him and withdrawn $250,000 from his bank account, leading to four years in prison. His taste echoed mine. That was the finest year for films in my experience, but we went too far with Melancholia, especially when it came right after the musical version of Les Miserables. Even though it had Wolverine singing, the guys had had enough of us and the usual accusations of racism were brought to the administration. As a result, the complainers were allowed to pick a film.

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There is a whole genre of books not sold in regular stores but usually on street stalls in questionable neighborhoods. The polite term is urban crime fiction, but what they are really called is “hood books.” Jailhouse libraries stock them, but they really shouldn’t, as they glorify crime and taking whitey down. Anyway, one of the hood books is called The Last Godfather, about a black gangster taking over the mafia. The guys found a movie called that and ordered it.

It turned out to be a Korean film about a bumbling idiot who comes to America and runs a crime family here. Harvey Keitel is in it, and it is literally the worst movie I have ever seen. Asian slapstick humor does not translate well, and most of the captive audience agreed, although they grudgingly watched it. After this debacle, my friend and I ordered The Artist out of revenge. We thought the aggressively retro movie would both be interesting for us to watch and a lesson to leave the culture to the experts. It wasn’t received well; many phone calls were made that night to the watch commander’s officer, from where the films are screened, about the soundtrack being broken.

Sharing a cultural experience, whether musical or cinematic, can be painful. The audience in jail usually talks through the dialogue and shuts up for the shooting. But as much as the jailhouse censors and authorities try to stamp down that flower of humanity by making it difficult for convicts to experience culture, the prisoners respond with their wits.

I was grateful I could supplement my voracious reading with other media, as it kept me feeling current. Now, when I talk to people I can bring up John Waters’ joke about the Three Bears without mentioning prison.

Culture is a powerful tool. Unlike in Siberian gulags or Nazi death camps, American prisons allow the inmates a chance — however circumscribed — to participate in its (admittedly) vapid televised and musical culture. It keeps them connected, if only loosely, to the larger America awaiting them when, or if, they’re released. The hunger for, and the inventiveness in attaining, the culture outside always struck me as not only a fundamental expression of humanity, but also of the hope of someday going home. The flower always seeks the sun.