Although prisoners forfeit their full Constitutional rights, some rights are so crucial that not even conviction can strip them away. Among these are the rights to due process, equal protection, and, according to inmate Richard Glenn Young, the right to play music behind bars.
Young is no ordinary inmate. While serving a life sentence at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford in 2002, he was featured in a VH-1 documentary about his independent inmate band that was formed through his prison’s program . Yet after public outcry about the program, Graterford later decided to ban independent inmate bands like Young’s. Instead, inmates could play music individually in certain cells, and perform at “religious services, an annual talent show, and special events as approved by the facility manager” .
First Amendment rights for prisoners have long been a contested issue. In Beard v. Banks (2006), the Supreme Court held that prison officials could deny access to newspapers, magazines and photographs to certain inmates . “[I]mprisonment does not automatically deprive a prisoner of certain important constitutional protections, including those of the First Amendment,” Justice Breyer wrote in his majority opinion. However, the Court found that a prisoner’s rights can still be restricted more than those of the general public, so long as the regulations are “‘reasonably related’ to legitimate penological interests” .
Following in the footsteps of Beard v. Banks, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Young’s first amendment right to express himself musically, both individually and as part of a band. But for prisoners, the court once again held that this right comes with some fine print. In cases where this freedom of musical expression conflicts with the government’s interest in maintaining security, security triumphs.
Young’s band became endangered when the music program grew faster than the prison’s resources could accommodate. Nearly every weekday, up to 60 inmates would disperse among three different floors in the auditorium area to rehearse. Due to this multi-floor, multi-room layout, the only feasible form of supervision was for prison administrators to peak their heads in “once every twenty or thirty minutes” . After conducting an investigation, administrators concluded that the lack of supervision of the program created an unsafe environment for inmates. Rather than waiting for a dangerous situation to arise, the District Court held that the prison could be proactive in restricting rehearsals.
Despite the prison’s decision to end the independent band program, alternative options still existed for prisoners to exercise their right to free expression. Inmates could still play music individually in their cells, take music classes, and even perform as a band at the talent show and special events. This availability of alternatives also led the federal appellate court to reject Young’s Establishment Clause argument, since the prison offered both religious and secular outlets for musical expression.
Although eliminating the independent band program did not violate Young’s freedom of expression, this is not to say that music rehabilitation has no place in prisons. The Arts Alliance, an organization that works with 40,000 individuals in the U.K. criminal justice system anually, found that arts-based interventions help rehabilitate prisoners. "Taking part in music workshops in prison was life changing,” said one Arts Alliance participant, “It was the first time that I started to make positive choices for myself; it began to change the way I think in a very deep way." .
Music rehabilitation is certainly a new frontier that merits exploration. While it’s true that prisoners retain a right to expression, however, this freedom must be expressed without undermining security. As Young and his band mates are now well aware, there is a delicate balance between preserving safety and protecting a prisoner’s right to expression.
 Richard Glenn Young. v. Jeffrey Beard, Commissioner Department of Corrections, 04-CV-02211 1,3 (United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit 2008).
 Beard, Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Corrections v. Banks, 548 U. S. 1, 1 (2006).
 Richard Glenn Young. v. Jeffrey Beard, Commissioner Department of Corrections, 04-CV-02211 1, 8 (United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit 2008).
 Robertson, Tim. “Arts in Prison: Why Cut Our Chance to Create Crime-free Futures?” The Guardian. Theguardian.com. 25 Nov. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/nov/25/arts-rehab-crime-criminal-justice>
Photo Credit: Flickr user foreverdigital (Jenn Vargas)