I visited the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution recently, to write about a new entrepreneurship course offered there. That story will appear in tomorrow's newspaper. During my visit, the prison's director of education, Cody Yeager, lamented in passing that she'd been trying to learn to play guitar for years, with little success.
Her problem, she said, was a lack of time.
Time is the one thing that the inmates she works with have plenty of. And some of them use it to master a musical instrument.
Joe Umphery, 30, has been in prison for the last five years. Three years ago, he picked up the guitar and started teaching himself to play.
“It took me a month to learn how to play one little simple tune,” he said.
Now, he practices alone for three hours a day, seven days a week. He takes classes in music theory, which he said is surprisingly similar to math. And he spends another two hours each week playing in a prison band called The Unusual Suspects.
Friday morning, the band held its weekly rehearsal. The group performed some original songs, as well as a few classic rock and country hits. It's a time that the inmates look forward to all week.
“We turn a week's worth of pain into 90 minutes of music,” said Jim Siehien, 44.
The music room is a drab, windowless square. One corner of the room is enclosed by a chain link fence, to store electric guitars, a keyboard, an electronic drum set, a few amps and a sound board.
The room is kept locked until certain times, when only certain inmates are allowed to enter.
“It's pretty privileged,” Siehien said. “You're looking at the good bad guys.”
Siehien took up the bass at age 16, when his friends were learning to play guitar.
A self-described drug addict, Siehien has been in prison for four years. When he first arrived, he said, he had no interest in music.
“Everything I thought I had was gone,” he said. “I was really angry.”
Eventually, another inmate, John Fine, talked Siehien into joining the band.
“It turns out he's really easy to get along with,” Siehien said of Fine.
That's not always the case. Siehien doesn't get along with the drummer, Doug Marchman, for example.
“The other 197 hours of the week, I don't talk to the guy,” Siehien said.
But the two have to join together to keep the band in rhythm, so they're working on getting along. Siehien acknowledges that this is an important lesson, and, if mastered, it could prevent him from being reincarcerated later.
Marchman, 48, started playing the drums at Snake River Correctional Institution, in Ontario, three years ago. Another drummer was released from prison and a band needed someone to step in.
“I had fiddled in a basic drum circle in Eugene and knew I could keep a beat,” he said.
He still can't read music but he has become more proficient in “playing along” with a tune.
“It's so therapeutic,” he said. “I get to hit things with a stick.”
John Fine, 45, has been playing the guitar for 20 years and writing songs for 30. He's in two different prison bands, including one that plays mostly original music.
“When I'm here, I'm free,” he said, standing in the music room. “I'm in a different world.”
Matt Insley, 31, has a bachelor's degree in piano performance and another in music theory. He knows how to play about 15 instruments and he tutors other inmates.
“I basically grew up in a house where, instead of giving toys,” he said, “my parents asked, 'What instrument do you want to learn this year?'”
Shortly after he arrived at the prison, Insley met with an administrator to suggest teaching private music lessons.
“To me, it's not an escape,” he said of music. “To me, it's about maintaining normality. While certain things have changed about my life, music is ... a constant.”
Prison employees like Yeager hope to expand the music program. With more instruments and more practice space, they said, more inmates could participate.
Yeager is looking for a community volunteer to teach voice lessons and help lead a prison choir.
Brandi Carlile's Looking Out Foundation recently awarded a $500 grant to the prison, to start a music library. Yeager has dreams of Carlile visiting the prison to see the music program firsthand, and to perform a set with The Unusual Suspects.
Last week, in honor of their new benefactor, the band covered Carlile's hit song, “The Story.”
Angie Ptomey, the prison's test administrator and computer lab coordinator, belted out the vocals. With the help of a little reverb, her voice could have passed for Carlile's.
Ptomey plays rhythm guitar and is the only prison employee in The Unusual Suspects. Her job is partly to keep tabs on the songs and lyrics that the band chooses to play. She also acts as a mediator when inmates argue with one another. And she brings something else to the band, too: A success story that inmates can relate to.
“In 2001, I ended up in prison for two-and-a-half years,” she said.
Someone mailed her a chord chart, so she picked up a guitar and started teaching herself to play. Today, she credits music as a major part of her rehabilitation.
“A lot of people don't believe in a higher power,” she said. “But you can be very spiritual through art and music. It helps just to be able to release some of the turmoil ... because we all have trauma in our lives.”
For Ptomey, the band is the realization of a long-held dream. When people ask if she's in a band, she can now say yes.
“They say, 'Where do you play?' And I say, 'Actually, in prison,'” she said with a laugh.
The Unusual Suspects have their next performance on June 14, at the education program's graduation ceremony.
In a practice session last week, they played a rollicking version of Johnny Cash's “Folsom Prison Blues.” Yeager, who was there as a spectator, suggested tweaking the lyrics to “far from Deer Ridge prison.”
“We talked about that,” Insley said, trailing off before he added: “It hits a little too close to home.”