While most prisoners are scheming on ways to get drugs, cell phones and tobacco into prison, – Will, a 40-year-old drummer from Texas, was on a mission to get everything he needed to record music. Ten years into a 20 year sentence for being a part of a cocaine conspiracy operating in the suburbs of Dallas, Will was attempting the unfathomable – setting up a recording studio in a low security prison right under the noses of correctional officers.
“They don’t want you recording in the joint so whenever you see a boom box or anything that has a record function, the button is always broke out,” says Jesse, a 42-year-old ex-con who did time with Will. Jesse, a folk musician from North Dakota, served 10 years inside for a drug conspiracy charge, recorded music with Will. “I remember the first recording we did was on a dual cassette deck that was getting thrown out. Big Will was a mastermind when it came to fixing anything – and I mean anything.”
Will’s technical know how and wizardry at fixing electronics and musical instruments landed him the grade one clerk position in the music department. It was a coveted spot and a position from which Will could pull off his greatest scam, building of a recording studio behind the walls of a prison. But it would take years.
“I started having to fix a lot of stuff around the place so that way it would save the cops money,” Will tells Transgression in a call from a different prison several years removed. “As I saved them money, I was able to order things that we needed more in the music department. I would buy things that we needed to build a badass sound system, as well as equipment we could turn around and use to record with- compressor gates, tube amps, stuff like that.”
By utilizing everything around him, Will had this amazing ability to make things work. You can’t YouTube a “how-to” video in prison, so Will learned by trial and error, playing and recording original music. Over the years, he eventually pieced together a studio out of all the different parts he acquired while keeping it under wraps from the prison officials.
“It was always a growing project. It was never totally ever done,” Will tells Transgression. “It was constantly evolving. It took six to eight years to build it all up just because I was getting the prison to buy a little bit here and a little bit there. I would order things that had multi-purposes. It was needed to run the sound system outside, but yet it could still be manipulated to use for a recording process. I didn’t have to do much explaining on why we needed it and if I did my word was good enough for them to believe, because I fixed everything.”
Will was the type of dude that could order different musical and electronic equipment and reconfigure it for whatever use he had. The staff loved him because he was a problem solver, making their job easy. Will’s duties as the grade one music clerk included making the band room schedules, forming and holding musical related classes, running the outdoor concerts, maintaining the equipment and ordering new stuff.
“Big Will was always looking to improve the setup that we had,” Jesse says. “One day he came up to me all smiles and held out his hand. It was a hand held digital recorder that had infinite memory space on it. We had previously been recording the live shows through the board with a big ass tape deck that was pretty obvious. The device was brought in as a favor for a favor type of deal and it let us record everything.”
It was a step up from every way Will had recorded in prison. He began recording to cassette tape, then to double cassette tape, then to a CD player. It was a process that evolved over numerous years. Will ordered more equipment like compressors, studio headphones and other small convenient items that made the recordings get better every year. Getting the items wasn’t easy, but Will always finagled order numbers and receipts – never showing what was actually purchased. If prison administrators caught wind of it, the studio would be shut down and everyone involved would be thrown in the hole.
“I think it was around 2011 or 12 when we finally hit pay dirt,” Jesse says. “The prison was shifting through supervisors in the recreation department, which meant we were getting a new boss. This guy oversaw everything that happened in recreation including the music department orders. If we could get a guy that was a music fan and sympathetic to our cause, we’d get great equipment that was otherwise forbidden inside prison walls.”
Will ingratiated himself with the recreation cops and made himself indispensable. It was all a means to an end. With the trust he built up with staff, Will developed the studio into a situation where prisoners were not only allowed to record their music, they could send it home on a CD too. It was an unofficial program, but one that the prisoners found satisfying.
“Recording something for our family and friends to enjoy was something to be proud of, ” Quirt, a 45-year-old Nebraskan who plays bass and served 5 years at the prison on a meth charge, says. “Will created something to make the most dismal part of our lives tolerable. He knew what we needed and how to use it. That prison had an amazing music department. It wouldn’t have been as great as it was without the guys we had running it. Plus some of the musicians were the best I’ve ever played with.”
When the new supervisor came on, Will pushed the idea of having a legit and operable recording studio that acted as a classroom – actually teaching people a valuable trade. Will wanted to take what was illicit and make it a legitimate program. He wrote up a proposal, but prison higher-ups shot down the idea. Will didn’t get legitimacy, but he was able to order some killer gear, including a little eight track digital recorder and a bunch of blank CD’s.
“I have written or been a part of almost 100 original songs while I was in prison,” Kevin, who did 10 years for drugs and guns and was with Will before he went home in 2015, says. “Being able to have these songs put down permanently makes me feel like maybe my 10 years down wasn’t completely wasted. Music gave me purpose and avenues to vent my frustration. In fact, some of the best songs that I ever wrote I wrote while I was there.”
Will and the others learned how to manipulate a system to get what they needed to make the best of a bad situation. A lot of music was recorded. Albums and albums full which represented not only a form of musical expression but snapshots into their lives at those moments. Inside the belly of the beast. Incarcerated and cut off from society but doing something real, tangible and artistic by making something out of nothing.
“The quality of the recordings we made was amazing.” Quirt says. “Our vocal booth was inside an equipment locker. Soundproofed with blankets. Layers and layers of blankets. It actually kind of blew me away how it completely took the echo out of the air. And the whole studio could be torn down in minutes. The recording gear doubled as our live concert gear.”
Even though some cops were willing to turn a blind eye to what was going on the recording studio could not be made public. It was understood that it was to be kept under wraps. If the wrong staff member walked through at the wrong time it could’ve turned into a very big deal very rapidly.
“The whole process was an orchestrated time bomb” Hoss, a 52-year-old ex-con from Kansas City who did 188 months on a meth charge and played in several bands with Will, says. “Could of blown up at any time with guards always around. But Will got it done and knew what time the bad cops were working.”
When you are in prison it sucks all the way around, but if you are a musician it really sucks. Bad equipment, limited practice time, no way to record -but Will made a way. “I owe Will and the music department a good piece of my sanity,” Quirt says. “And my family and friends still enjoy listening to the CD’s.”
Will learned how to take a skill and turn it into something positive to keep people from getting into trouble. Even though technically recording music is absurdly considered a security breach, Will and his crew used it to promote creative and artistic talent. By giving inmates something to focus on it made everyone’s time a little easier.
“I’ve got all kinds of people saying that was the best time in prison that they did or it made their time go by easy and it was something positive that they were involved with or that they enjoyed it,” Will tells Transgression. “I think it made a lot of people’s time easy. It was fucking positive. It was something to look forward to. It kept people busy. We created something that wasn’t bad, and it occupied our time even though it was technically illegal.”