How Metal Keeps Me Connected to My Partner in Prison

Listening to and talking about music, he says, minimizes his lingering vulnerability and hopelessness, even if only fleetingly.
January 15, 2019, 7:31pm
Illustration by Sangoiri/Shutterstock

My partner is in prison. For lack of a more decent or articulate platitude, it fucking sucks.

I started college at a mid-sized state university in northern Ohio. I grew up in a small community in northern Appalachia, and my classmates could hear the West Virginia border in the way I enunciated vowels. I couldn’t shake my rural regional vernacular, like using “them” in the demonstrative form, and I couldn’t relate to most of my middle class, Lululemon-clad classmates. So I tried hanging out with the punk kids. Surely, liking The Cro-Mags meant we had, like, everything in common.

I shot my number at a classique chain punk with a razor guard haircut and familiar lyrics tattooed on his throat. He stalked around our campus in military surplus boots and the same double-cuffed folded beanie Detroit hardcore kids wear to see Freedom at the Majestic. The first time I saw him, I spent a little too long lingering in my rumpled Hello Kitty boxer PJs, waiting around for him to get off his shift at a campus cafe—to talk about the tenets of anarcho-syndicalism and the Californian deathgrind band Cattle Decapitation, probably.

We met just before he graduated. We’d meet up and talk, but rarely follow up, and he was the type who didn’t look at his phone for days. After losing contact, I thought our friendship just didn’t quite gel when he moved to a different city. He was hoping to start a few urban farming collaborative projects with some friends after college. Several years into his five-year sentence, when I learned about his whereabouts, I paid $.47 to send him an email via Securus Technologies’ JPay and included a stamp for a pre-paid reply. I wanted to tell him everything that had happened since we last saw each other—when he left my room in the university res hall to go to a meeting for a local organization that sent books to prisoners.

For the first few months, we corresponded with JPay emails and letters, which usually resulted in weeks of lapses in communication. It can take up to three weeks for the mailroom at the facility where he’s housed to issue inmates pieces of mail. JPay kiosks where inmates can login to send and receive emails can lag for weeks at a time, so I gave him my number. He’s called every day since. Where he’s housed, visitors can make only two three-hour visits or one six-and-a-half hour visit a month. I spent my 23rd birthday hunched over a visiting room table with him for the span of an entire visiting day, which felt like only a few minutes. The night before, he’d conspired in secret to send my best friend to a worker-owned bakeshop in our city to surprise me with birthday cupcakes, a thoughtfulness that I’d learn would come to define our connection. He has little access to being present in my life the way we both long for, but he always finds a way.

We spent over half of our first visit talking about music, pausing only for me to retrieve overpriced drinks and snacks from the vending machines and embarrass myself by mouthing the exact guitar riff on whatever album he was almost certainly pretending that he’d long-since forgotten. I wasn’t allowed to hug or kiss him more than twice, and we had to strain our posture to retain grip of one another’s hands over the shin-level coffee table between our hard plastic visitation room chairs. But, to me, talking about Unbroken’s Life. Love. Regret. is pretty much the same thing. It’s our thing: despite the impossibility of the separation that the carceral state imposes between us, everyday we’re pleasantly surprised by the capability of music to sustain our connection.

At times, it can be difficult to have sustained, nuanced conversations about things that matter to us, like political theory and discourse, global conflict, impending climate collapse, and even, sometimes, what we want for our relationship. It’s frustrating, at best, to finally reach an organic progression in conversation only to be interrupted by poor call quality or routine reminders that the call is being recorded and monitored.

When we were experiencing the liminal relationship phase between confessing more-than-platonic feelings and deciding to define the relationship, the interruptions made it difficult to forget every barrier between us. I finally worked up the courage to utter, “We should, like, be together—like, together together,” only to be forced to wait for his response after the eternity-long automated reminder that followed: “This is a prepaid call from an inmate in an Ohio correctional facility and may be recorded or monitored.”

He told me that it was challenging for him to open up to a romantic partner the same way he might have prior to incarceration. Three years of isolation, lack of privacy, and separation from most of the conversational vernacular he once used to express himself made it hard to relearn what “together” even feels like. At times, his voice would soften and I could sense that he finally felt comfortable enough to share something intimate, but the poor call quality would distort more than half of his monologue. And so I cherished the fleeting moments when his laugh was a little less guarded, his tone slightly more at ease.

When we first reconnected after losing contact for the first three years of his sentence, talking about music allowed us to connect in a way that other topics couldn’t. It was a topic that made conversation more casual despite the circumstances—as casual as navigating the uncertain terrain of starting a romantic relationship between those walls can be. Beyond something we had in common, it was one of the few things in his life not entirely defined or taken from him by his incarceration. He tells me it almost makes him feel like he’s home—or at least somewhere where he isn’t surrounded by concrete, correctional officers, and 2,500 other inmates.

Before his sentence, he’d spent more than fifteen years pivoting between being a jazz musician and drumming in local punk bands. Starting in college, he spent the first few years of his twenties booking benefit shows to support multiscalar prison abolitionist causes. For the first two years of his sentence, he had fraught access to radio programming and no access to the music he used to listen to, which spanned metal, blue note jazz, crust, New York hardcore, and scramz. He said it exasperated his feelings of powerlessness.

Prior to the mass rollout of handheld tablets capable of streaming and downloading music in US correctional facilities, he hadn’t heard any of his favorite bands in more than two years. “It was like the first time I heard them,” he told me. Once he obtained a GTL subscription application to stream music, he said, he sat on his bunk and listened for more than six hours. “I felt like I wasn’t in prison.”

The costs of single mp3s and the radio streaming service, among other features, are nearly insurmountable for many prisoners, though they vary by state and facility. Where he’s housed, the radio streaming service is available at weekly and monthly rates, and costs $30 a month. Still, he said he’s chosen purchasing music over food at times—even though the selection of alternative artists is dodgy, sparse, and disorganized. Listening to familiar music helps him feel more comfortable, he says, and minimizes his lingering vulnerability and hopelessness, even if only fleetingly.

Talking about artists within metal’s never-ending subgenres—from atmospheric black metal to early powerviolence—helps him rediscover his old favorite bands and learn about new ones. Prison music streaming services aren’t like Spotify. The “related artists” sections are mostly inaccurate and aren’t catalogued correctly; there’s no algorithm that directs listeners to artists they might also like and no dynamic method of filing of artists into the neat genre categories typically available on streaming platforms. He has to recall and manually enter the names of artists and titles of albums he wants to listen to in order to find them. And since he has no access to the internet, or to print journalism about music, he has no way to discover music.

The flow of conversation about different subgenres, artists, and releases can be succinct, rapid, and lighthearted. We have similar tastes, but with just enough variance that we can exchange suggestions and playfully disagree about the best parts of a band’s discography. The time we have together is defined by limits, so we listen to one another’s favorites in the moments in between.

One evening in late September, he called at his usual time and I picked up and told him about the recent Ragana and Thou split, Let Our Names Be Forgotten, which I had just streamed for the first time. At some point, I realized how often he probably heard me refer to every other new release as “easily my favorite of the year,” but he played along. He probes me for updates on new releases every day so he can search them on the music streaming service on his tablet, collecting a roster of artists and titles he wouldn’t otherwise hear about. He cooly responded: “I remember Thou. Kinda sludgy?” and I described their half of the split. I knew he was probably smirking or rolling his eyes at my dorky, long-winded, blathering review of each track.

At some point, I realized that although I was filling him in about Let Our Names Be Forgotten, all I really wanted to articulate was how much I wanted for him to be here—or anywhere but there. I held back the thought that I’d do anything if it meant seeing him in this realm, as we call it—happy, well-adjusted, in anything but state-issued, dentist office blue pajamas.

But instead I delineated the progression of the tracks and how perfectly I thought they were ordered.

“But yeah, kinda sludgy,” I said. “You’d like it.” I corrected myself: “You will.”