The 12-Bar Blues Project releases three prisoner-produced CDs

Breaking up the band
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  November 3, 2010

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STRUMMING RELEASE An inmate learns the chords.

Leisure. What do you do in your spare time? Should you have any, and if you're like most Portlanders, you're doing something creative and productive — making art, acting in local theater, volunteering for a non-profit organization, maybe just taking your kids to the playground.

Okay. Maybe you're just watching DVDs and smoking dope. But then you talk about things very seriously.

The guys who now find themselves in the Maine Correctional Center over in Windham? Let's just say they've tended in their lives to be less than productive with their downtime. They've spent their time getting hammered, doing drugs, or "getting the idea it would be fun to go knock over a bunch of gravestones somewhere," says Norene Hopkins, community program coordinator at the MCC.

Not all of them, of course. There are hard-luck cases of all kinds among the more than 650 inmates in Windham (generally spending between nine-month and five-year sentences). But, says Hopkins, of the nine characteristics inmates are screened for when they enter, including economic background, education, employment history, and past offenses, nothing correlates quite so well for the Maine Correctional Center prisoner as a failing grade in the leisure category.

"They need ways to occupy their time," says Hopkins.

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Otherwise, the prisoners are released, go back to their old habits (with their new friends), and come right back to the prison. While a State Sentencing and Corrections Practices Coordinating Council meeting in May admitted "there is not funding to accurately monitor sentencing practices and review ongoing data collection on recidivism," the one-year recidivism rate in Maine is somewhere between 19 and 27 percent, depending on the crime committed and the profile of the inmate, according to a July 2009 report prepared by Michael A. Rocque and Mark Rubin for the National Institute of Corrections.

Hopkins estimates the overall recidivism percentage is somewhere in the mid-30s.

Three years ago, she took over her role from a woman who'd been doing it for 35 years, focusing on furlough programs and prisoner work-release, things Hopkins still oversees. But she also decided to head up a new leisure-focused program.

There is a prison newsletter, where men have learned to use Microsoft Publisher (a little anachronistic, yes, but still better than nothing) and to write stories about prison news and prison sporting events. Hopkins will soon start up a crocheting program (yes, for real), in which men will crochet blankets for the puppies they socialize for the Animal Refuge League.

And then there is Jim Svendsen, whom Hopkins calls "one of the most committed volunteers I've ever seen."

Svendsen runs Guitar Doors, a non-profit group that's going into Maine prisons to teach inmates to play music and, along the way, putting bands together. His 12-Bar Blues Project records these prison bands and helps them create albums, including all the artwork and duplication. November 4, they release at the Empire the first three CDs produced by incarcerated bands.

Yes, they're real full-length albums. Produced by bands with jokey names: Dirty Ink & Mutton Chops, Politically in Corrections, and P6 and the Windham Philharmonic. Politically in Corrections was created up at the Two Bridges Regional Jail in Wiscasset. The other two were made in Windham. Early next year Svendsen will start a session at the Long Creek Youth Development Center. He just got back from working in a prison outside of London, England.

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