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Collage of woman listening to music on headphones
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi

Listen to KC’s soundtrack on Spotify as you read their article.

The first notes begin, loud and heavy. My pulse rises, thudding with the beat. I am in another place, another life. 

For 18 years, music has transported me through the gates and over the razor wire — a prison break that defies time and transcends years of confinement.

Music connects me to my past and to people, some of whom I will never see, and never hold, again. When I hear the guitar licks of B.B. King, or the intoxicating voice of John Lee Hooker, I think of my mom on the days she had been pain-free and we would go shopping or browse bookstores. We drove with the windows down and the music up.

We had a difficult relationship. It was rare to see her so relaxed and full of life. But with just a song, I was able to bring the best of her back, laughing and singing.

Other times, I hear a song that takes me back to the days when I would be in my car alone, driving down streets that would surely be unrecognizable to me now, after all these years in prison. The trees that used to line the street have been replaced by highrises and Starbucks cafes; but sitting on a concrete bench in the prison yard with my eyes closed, listening to the rock band Urge Overkill, those pine trees still stand firm in my mind against the travesties of growth and greed.

Then, there are those songs that jar me so deeply I have to stop what I'm doing to regain control. The haunting lyrics of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell's “Down in a Hole” put me back on my living room floor, laid out next to a massive speaker pumping bass through my torpid body. A charred spoon and an ashtray overflowing with Marlboros litter my coffee table; remnants of powder streak its glass top. My suicide song, I always called it. Now, I'm here, in this cell, listening on a $12 radio, wondering if I'm better off.

Until recently, our only option for music was a state-issued AM/FM radio. They were always plastic, and usually transparent to prevent people from hiding contraband. It came with cheap, tinny headphones. It was possible to upgrade to a JVC model for $9.31, but the stations that we could receive were limited depending on the institution or even the specific prison cell.

Of course, we had tricks to get better reception. One was to run homemade antennas, made from old headphone wires, through holes bored into the plexiglass windows. It could take hours or days of laborious work to set it up. But we were motivated by the need for new music, a dose of current events and, above all, desperation to not be alone with our ceaseless racing thoughts. In here, we have nothing but time.

In 2009, three years into my sentence, I spent six months segregated in solitary confinement. No phone, no visitation, no commissary; only three showers and a few hours outside per week.

To combat loneliness, others would talk to a neighbor or yell from cell to cell. But solitude had never bothered me.

I didn’t feel alone because I had my radio. Sure, I had books, magazines, my back issues of The New York Times — all of which I devoured. But it was my radio that got me through. It blocked the incessant arguing, the off-key singing, the banging and kicking of cell doors in a ploy to get attention.

When I would go stir-crazy or get angry, I would turn my rock up — songs by Disturbed and System Of A Down — and jump from my bed, against the wall, and onto my sink-toilet unit, creating a one-person mosh pit.

Never a fan of pop music, I longed to hear anything other than the Top 40s. I created a daily routine based around the schedules of radio shows like “Back Porch Music,” “The Thistle & Shamrock,” “Penitentiary Rock” and “Delilah,” the popular radio personality (yes, really).

I also listened to NPR programs such as “A Prairie Home Companion,” “All Things Considered” and “The Moth Radio Hour.” “Coast to Coast AM” host George Noory escorted me through the darkest of nights, when the block was deadly quiet apart from the occasional snoring or yelling.

I depended on these voices from the radio — and the stories they told — to remind me I was still part of a world that continued on.

If a soul is locked in a room, and no one is around to confirm it, does life keep evolving?

It does. In fact, it continued so seamlessly, I began to think it wouldn't even notice if I ceased to exist.

When I first arrived at the prison compound, I rarely spoke or interacted with others. My earbuds stayed firmly in place as I raged to Static-X or broke down to the Deftones. I numbed myself with whatever I could and sat for hours under a tree.

Over the years, music has been the one constant that fulfills its promise and never abandons me. I sleep with it. I start my day with it. On my daily runs, it motivates my steps.

Now, I can time-travel anywhere with a push of a button. In 2021, the North Carolina Department of Corrections began issuing tablets from the company Global Tel Link to all inmates. With these rudimentary devices, we can text, watch movies, play games and view photos — and listen to Stingray Music, a streaming service. The tablets are free, but the programs cost 3 cents a minute, or $15 for 1,500 minutes.

I now have access to nearly unlimited genres, artists and stations. When we first got the tablets, I would spend hours searching for long-forgotten songs and artists, ones not played on the radio: Pixies, Tricky, Morrissey.

With just a touch, I go back to being a teenager, blowing illicit smoke out my bedroom window, pouring over lyrics from Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, fantasizing about our kindred spirits. Or blaring Radiohead's “Creep” in the car with my first (unrequited) crush, who made me realize I was different from other girls. Or cruising with my best friend Nick as we rocked out to the Violent Femmes.

I wouldn't trade the freedom of choosing my own music for anything. Yet, after three years, songs that once brought me back to the past no longer affect me as they once did.

I often wonder what the soundtrack of my two-decade sentence will contain. What memories will it evoke? Will I hear Breaking Benjamin and think of clanging doors and suffocating cells? Or will I hear Nathaniel Rateliff and Portishead and relive the weeks after my mom's passing?

Rather, I hope to hear Falling In Reverse and think of the miles I logged; and Brandi Carlile and all the late nights I spent working on my bachelor's. I want to sing along to Luke Combs, like my girlfriend Jenny and I did on those sweltering days mowing the grounds of the prison compound.

Music has held my hand on the darkest of days, expressing what I couldn't bear to. It has lifted me up when all I wanted was to quit. I only hope my soundtrack will remind me of my strength and courage, my determination to keep the music playing.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

K.C. Johnson is a writer incarcerated in North Carolina.