Henhouse Prowlers on the inside

Here’s the fourth report by The Henhouse Prowlers from their ongoing European tour. This comes from banjo picker and founding member, Ben Wright. The guys have promised daily reports (with photos) from their Euro-jaunt over the next week or so. You can follow all their posts by clicking here.

Today was one of those rare days that you know you’ll remember for the rest of your life, almost before it even starts. We had been anticipating our gig at the prison ever since we first got an early list of shows being booked. To our somewhat uncomfortable amusement, Turnhout Prison is directly across from an elementary school. The guard slid open a medieval style gate to let us in and we parked in front of the main entrance. We were greeted by the warden and his assistant and guided through the check-in process, which involved surrendering our passports and going through a metal detector.

I was struck immediately by some of the art on the walls. There were playbills mixed with band posters and prison related album covers. Lighthearted prison jokes were being thrown around almost immediately, mostly regarding whether or not the guards would let us back out. These first impressions cast a sense of relief and unnerving wariness all at the same time. The warden then lead us on to the cell block.

We were told that we would be performing in the chapel and that there would be a meal provided for us. An inmate served coffee and tea while we ate sandwiches that were delicious. This was the same food the prisoners eat and it really drove home this emerging feeling of humane treatment throughout the prison.

There was an incredible discussion with the warden about a number of fascinating subjects. He talked of how many Belgians sided with the Germans after they invaded the country and dispersed propaganda that was meant to splinter the nation into it’s French and Dutch regions. To this day, certain people will avoid shopping at specific establishments because the owners supported the Germans more than 50 years ago.

We also talked at length about prisons all over the world, of which he had visited many. He spoke of Cook County jail and many other US prisons that he had been to, along with ones in the Congo and Russia. It was heartening to find that the warden was such a scholar of history and worldwide incarceration practices. He spoke of how rare a life sentence is in Belgium, and of how the death penalty is never an option.

After eating, we were brought into a side room where we could warm up as one of the guards began yelling down the cell-block that there would be a show shortly. As we waited for the room to fill, the inmate that had served us coffee showed us some gypsy jazz chords on Eric’s guitar and spoke of his fondness for Django Reinhardt. He was incredibly kind and soft spoken and what little we saw of his playing was quite good! At that point we were given the signal to enter the room as the crowd of 60+ men applauded loudly.

It’s difficult to describe how powerful this moment was. By the time we hit the stage, it had become clear to us that these men were treated with dignity and respect. Still, it’s wild to be standing in a room full of convicted criminals that outnumber you by a factor of more than ten. There was only one guard in the room, and a female who worked at the prison as well. It’s hard to imagine so few guards and any female presence for such an occasion at an American prison.

The show went smoothly and the men listened intently to all our songs (including several that referenced prison life), often clapping along with our more up-tempo tunes. Sixty minutes of music felt like ten by the time it was over. We played an encore and were delighted that the men lined up to shake our hands with huge grins on their faces.

As we were packing to leave, several of the inmates asked us where they could get our CD. I offered to get one out of the van and they laughed, commenting that they weren’t allowed to have CD’s in their cells. The warden stepped forward and told us that he would be happy to put our CDs in their library so the men could listen on their recreation time.

After walking out and getting the warden copies of all three of our CD’s, we asked him what the man who had served us lunch and played guitar for us was in prison for. Without any hint of irony, the warden let us know that this man was one of the few people incarcerated for life and that he was a well known serial killer and rapist.

We left stunned and thankful that all four of us had experienced it together as a band. I’m not sure we would have believed our own stories otherwise.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.