n hour and a half after he was scheduled to arrive at Joyceville Institution, Christopher Hugh Brown, running on “island time,” strolled into the prison, wearing yellow sunglasses, plaid shorts and a band t-shirt.
He recalls being “freaked out” the first time he walked the halls of the institution, having made the trip from Wolfe Island near Kingston. But what Brown found waiting for him was unexpected: a halfmoon of about 17 chairs, filled with incarcerated people eager to learn how to make music, and an empty seat for him. Within five minutes, they were singing songs they learned in church — some they’d written — and cracking poetry books.
“From day one, it became so fluent,” said Brown, who is a multi-instrumentalist, social justice advocate and the founder of the Pros and Cons program.
The Pros and Cons program brings instruments, recording equipment and musical mentors to people inside correctional institutions to support healing and victim support. The project’s success has become a case study for restorative justice and giving new purpose to incarcerated people, some of whom still play music and have found work in the music industry after release.
“In prison, people get used to being avoidant and isolated. When you're playing music in a room… they start communicating with one another,” Brown said. “The present tense becomes something that you stop avoiding and delaying, and want to engage in. That itself is the first step towards rehabilitation and reintegration into society.”
News about the program reached Jake Bury in Joyceville’s assessment unit by way of a correctional officer who suggested he would “love it.” Bury was incarcerated in Joyceville institution from March 2017 until his release in June 2019. He had played music his whole life, having first picked up the guitar around the age of eight or nine.
“Every person that I met in Pros and Cons, every person who stayed involved for more than 24 hours, was exactly the same,” Bury said. “They realize that whatever it was, circumstantial or not, they broke the law. They fucked up…nobody was blaming anybody else.
They're saying, ‘I screwed up here. I want to fix myself, I want to be better.’ ”
For the first few sessions, Bury sat back and asked questions. But in three months time, incarcerated people were taking the lead, and Bury was teaching himself how to use the software and running sessions. Bury left a lasting first impression on Brown, and quickly became a mentor for him inside the facility.
“[Jake] was incredibly earnest and intense. He was hungry to learn and passionate about music,” Brown said. “It became evident that he just had such an aptitude for it. It was undeniable.”
When Bury joined, the program had just been granted permission to store recording gear at the facility full-time, but the team lacked the knowledge of how to work with the equipment. So the instruments stayed locked in a closet, to be used once a week. By the time Bury left Joyceville Institution, there was a music room and a new hire dedicated to making sure the gear was in good shape and accessible to incarcerated people at all times.
“During my stay alone, we recorded over 100 fully-completed tracks, with the involvement of sometimes over 30 inmates,” Bury said.
Bury said the only way incarcerated people can succeed during their time in prison is to know where they’re going, and how to get there. Without Pros and Cons, it would have “been a tougher path,” he said.
“It’s definitely accelerated my career path and given me a lot of options, and a really great charitable focus,” Bury said.
“I will always be involved with Pros and Cons simply because I know the power that it has,” he added. “I've watched a roomful of eight guys who will never speak to each other in the real world sit down and be excited for each other making music because that's the language we all speak.”
Now, the program “runs itself” in many ways, thanks to people like Bury who have taken the reins, Brown said.
“When Jake works with people and they know that he was inside, it’s very, very different work than what I can do alone,” Brown said. Similarly, when a man previously imprisoned for life obtains parole and is seen to be doing meaningful work on the outside by inmates, it “sets a tone,” he added.
The Joyceville Institution is a clustered facility housing a minimum-security prison in Kingston’s east end. It’s based on a residential design model, consisting of small group accommodation houses, an assessment unit and temporary detention site. It can hold 752 people.
The Kingston region is home to four federal penitentiaries — the largest concentration in the nation — earning the title of Canada’s prison capital. At its peak, there were 10 penitentiaries actively operating in the Greater Kingston Area.
In 2010, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government ended the country’s federal prison farm system, a controversial move that shuttered agricultural operations across Kingston’s correctional centres. Concerned the Conservative government was working to rationalize privatizing prisons, Brown drew on his experience using music for social justice to introduce music workshops inside prisons.
“People who have caused harm are vulnerable, which is a very interesting thing to wrap your head around,” Brown said.
When Bury was released in 2019, he says he immediately got a call from Brown to begin work on the outside. Now, Bury is a producer for Wolfe Island Records, and engineers the records that Brown makes. He also supports the operations of Pros and Cons. They share a fraternity in music and mutual mentorship.
“He has surpassed me in terms of certain technical knowledge,” Brown added.
Incarcerated people in the Pros and Cons Program have been mentored by renowned guest singer-songwriters such as Sarah Harmer and Kate Fenner. The money raised by Pros and Cons provides instruments, recording equipment and mentors to “teach skills and promote healing in situ” for incarcerated people.
Brown has taken the program to several correctional centres, including the Collins Bay Institution and the Grand Valley Institution for Women. Pros and Cons is slated to begin operating in three more correctional centres in Southeastern Ontario.
Brown says his dream for the company is that it can continue to provide a platform for people who are facing incarceration to develop deeper relationships with themselves and other people. Brown says he wants to continue employing people upon their release and educating others about Ontario’s prison system.
“We have a long way to go. Music should be liberated,” Brown said. “It should be available to all, and people should be able to feel it. I don’t want anybody to be denied that sensation.”
The Pros and Cons Prison Arts Program is a registered Canadian Charity under the Canada Revenue Agency. Listen to four song collections produced by the Pros and Cons project, so far.