Tom Douglas is a legendary country music songwriter who was recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. His musical collaborators include country music stars like Miranda Lambert, John Michael Montgomery, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw, Collin Raye, and Lady Antebellum. His song, “The House That Built Me,” was named the 2010 Song of the Year by both the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music.
His most recent project, however, lacks the star power of any of these previous collaborations.
“I am having a songwriting class with seven inmates,” Douglas tells the Tennessean newspaper. “We’re talking creativity; we’re reading The Great Gatsby, and we’re trying to write a really good song together.”
“I’m really trying to get the inmates to tell their stories,” he says. “They’re seven guys, and each guy has four lines in which he encapsulates his life story in the verse of the song.”
Davidson County (TN) Sheriff Darron Hall sees the potential for long-term benefits of such a process. “It’s our purpose that we should find the ‘why’ people come into institutions, and what caused and led them here,” Hall says. “We don’t have but one simple answer to that question – it’s complex, and we think the solution is complex. … We believe the more creative we can be about bringing ideas to the population, the more likely that individual may turn his life around or her life around.”
Much is made about the escalating costs of the modern prison system, and the relative failure of those spent dollars to have any meaningful return on investment. Less attention is paid to the lost “opportunity costs” of having millions of men and women – many in what should be the prime season of their careers – locked behind bars instead of positively contributing something to society. Programs like this remind us that those behind bars do have abilities and talents that can benefit their communities, and help to prepare the 97 percent of inmates who are eventually released to use those talents productively.
“These guys are as creative as any bunch I have ever worked with,” says Douglas. “I’ve leaned as much from them as anything I’ve taught them.”
May we never fail to see the image of God in those in prison, and may we never forget that the men and women behind bars have gifts and abilities that, when properly nurtured, can benefit us all.