Music Beyond the Cement Detention Cell

Brian is a CIVIC visitor volunteer working in Arkansas with the Interfaith Conference.  He shares about why he was initially apprehensive about visiting and why he now understands the importance of this work… 

I was somewhat apprehensive about joining the immigrant visitation program for a number of reasons. My Spanish isn’t too good; I have a particularly hard time understanding people with accents; and mainly, I’m just not much of a talker. My very first visit proved that the group’s reassurances – don’t worry if you’re having a hard time understanding because the people in immigration detention appreciate just having someone to talk to.  These reassurances weren’t simply to trick me into bolstering their numbers. I had a genuine, intimate conversation with someone who minutes before was a complete stranger, despite the intermittent “Sorry, say that again.”  But my presence alone, the instance of a caring person taking time out of their life on the other side to bear witness to a strikingly different iteration of the human condition, seemed to be enough and certainly said more than my words could that day.

Music in prison, community initiatives for visiting immigrants in confinement, immigration detention visitation, prison justiceFuture visits proved that simple chats about the weather or local restaurants could be uplifting as well, but I would say my first visit to one detainee left a truly indelible impression.  His words were marked by a slowness and timidity obviously aroused by a severe sadness that belied an otherwise outgoing personality. We talked back and forth for awhile and when the conversation shifted to music he grew happier. Not given a chair, he sat on the cement table, leaned closer to the thick glass, and asked if I would like to hear a song. Closing his eyes, he sang a slow love song that he had memorized from lyrics mailed to him by a friend. He stopped between stanzas to open his eyes and offer an honest smile.

Visiting any incarcerated person is a unique experience, especially when you know little about them in the first place. All of the regular cultural contexts we use for getting a bearing on just who this is we’re talking to — clothing, social groups, frequented locales — are stripped away; even mannerisms and personality are often tinted by the surroundings. At the detention facility I visit, a three-by-four foot piece of glass is the only window you’re given into a person’s entire life. I often find people in immigration detention talking of where we would meet up in the outside world, because it’s obvious that my glimpse into their essence is insufficient, just a bland taste of who they are.

The flip side of the story is more painful: this window, maybe my visit alone, is the only direct personal contact that they may have with the world beyond the cement box they currently inhabit. And, no matter how appreciated the visit may be, the feeling that I am able to bring that world nowhere near close enough permeates every meeting. However, Julio’s songs seem to bring us both out of that sterile facility, the salient reverb of the bare concrete walls outmatching any auditorium.


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