Women at Kitchener's Grand Valley prison release first musical album

Women at Grand Valley Institution say a music program at the prison has opened a door to new ways of expressing and understanding themselves.

Women worked with musicians to write, score and record an album now available online

A group of women at Grand Valley Institution released an album, Undisclosed Location, on March 8. (John Copping)

When she first walked through the doors of the music room at Grand Valley Institution for Women, Bayley didn't know what to expect.

"I never knew I was musically inclined," she told CBC News. "I never played an instrument before in my life."

But when another inmate put a bass guitar in her hands and a microphone in front of her mouth, the young woman found something inside herself that both shocked and inspired her.

"It was exciting to be inspired by something I was doing," she said. "Like, I was inspiring myself and realizing I had this capability and this talent."

Pros and Cons music program

6 years ago
Duration 1:40
Musician and social activist Hugh Christopher Brown created a music rehabilitation program for inmates.

CBC agreed to refer to Bayley and her fellow inmates by their first names only, as these women can face harsh stereotypes and shaming when they leave prison and return to the community.

The label "prisoner" and "criminal" chips away at their confidence, but Bayley said music gives her courage — the courage to stand up in front of a room of her fellow inmates and sing. 

That's what she did the afternoon of March 8, when a group of her peers released an album of original music that was recorded at the prison.

Program began in Kingston, Ont.

The music can be downloaded online for free, but listeners are encouraged to donate to selected charities.

All of the tracks on Undisclosed Location were written, scored and sung by inmates who have lived at Grand Valley and participated in a program called Pros and Cons.

The program was designed by musician Hugh Christopher Brown and first rolled out at Joyceville Institution in Kingston, Ont.

Since then, Brown told CBC News the program has attracted tremendous attention, not only from philanthropists like himself, but also from people running Canada's federal prisons.

"We have five institutions that have opened their doors to us right now," he said. "I just have to clone myself." 

Instead of cloning, Brown chose to work with musician John Copping when he brought Pros and Cons to Grand Valley.
Hugh Christopher Brown and John Copping — pictured here inside Grand Valley Institution — worked together to help women at the prison record their music. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

Copping, who said his technical title was "musical mentor," said the single largest part of his job was trying to quell frustration the women expressed in trying something new.

"I spend a lot of time saying, 'Look, it takes time. You want to make something great? You've got to fight for it. You've got to push. You've got to struggle,'" he said.

And the women did struggle, although Copping said it was sometimes hard to tell what they thought of the finished product.

Culmination of many efforts

It wasn't until the album release party on March 8 that he could finally tell what the program and the music meant to the women.

Empress, who finished Thursday's event by singing her song Lost from the album, said the day "felt so different."

The song, which she said she wrote when she was a teenager, reminds her of a time when she felt abandoned, unwanted and unloved.

"I had to think and say, 'You know what, there's always going to be God. God is always going to be there for you. If no one else is there for you, God will be there for you," she said.

While she was singing the song, she said she wanted her peers to hear what she was thinking: that they aren't alone and that they can succeed, even through trials.

"Even if you don't believe in God, there is someone or something in your heart or someone that you love dearly that will be thinking about you, that will always be there for you," she said. "What you believe in is what will carry you through."