DJing for Rikers Island Inmates: Bringing Music Behind Bars

This post is dedicated to the incredible Sharon Jones, who once was a Corrections Officer at Rikers Island. Rest In Peace, Sharon Jones, thank you for inspiring me and the world with your incredible spirit and talent.

I DJ at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility, the large island prison complex that floats in the middle New York City’s East River. I do not know how many other DJs can say they do this, let alone female DJs, but by the graces of Rikers Island, Literacy for Incarcerated Teens and Galinsky Coaching, I am allowed to bring my gear, my cables, and my music, all considered contraband, through the intimidating and intense layers of security, through the bars that keep so many folks separated from the free world.

“How did you end up in prison?” people ask me, attempting at being cute. I was invited to write to female inmates by my dear friend who coaches young inmates in the literacy program. I wrote a few letters to these young women, stating that people like me in the outside world were thinking about them, hoping they would write back, and to my teary-eyed surprise, they actually wrote back. “Dear DJ CherishTheLuv, I love music too…” Soon, I was asked to bring my DJ passion to the prison to help create a music environment for these talented women to sing to, recite poems to, but not dance to. They aren’t allowed to dance.

But they do wiggle in their seats, because the rhythm will always get us.

I’ll never forget the lavender-colored prison bars, floral murals, and easy-access riot gear hanging on the walls. Lavender. How else would you create a more “feminine” atmosphere for Rose M. Singer Center, the sole womens prison on Rikers, named after a founding member of the New York City Board of Correction and founder / president emeritus of the Friendly Visitors, a service group dedicated to supporting women in prison. Singer was 94 years old when she died in 1991. I like to believe that she is looking down, satisfied, at what we have been doing.

It’s very complex, the guilty feeling of packing up my DJ gear to go home at the end of a day of playing music for these female prisoners. Wrapping up cables, I take hyper-vigilant inventory to make sure that everything I brought into the jail comes out with me (it’s quite frightening to think that a misplaced XLR cable could be used to strangle someone or commit suicide, so real). Packed up, and on our way home, the somber feeling in the pit of my stomach during the van ride exiting the prison hits hard. Driving over the painfully long Rikers Bridge, with the other silenced musicians, literacy folks, and friends who joined us for support is loaded with feelings that can’t really be described, but it comes from the wake-up call that we get to go home, but all of those women who were singing to the music I just spun, couldn’t.

Any why couldn’t they go home?

Oh, so complicated.

I noticed that the female inmates were dressed in one of three different colors jumpers (jumpers being the outfit worn day-to-day); I’m hoping I remember this accurately, I may accidentally swap the first two colors in this explanation, forgive me if I do: green, dark brown, and khaki (being the majority of what these women were wearing.) I asked the warden what these colors meant, and she looked at me with an unfortunate look and told me that the women in green were 16 years old, the women in the dark brown were sentenced and serving time, and the rest of the women, the majority, in khaki, had not even had their trial yet. These women were in limbo, waiting for the system to give them their trial so that they can know their sentence if guilty, or go home to their children, as many of them had, if innocent. Yes, many of the detained women in khaki are innocent. In many cases, they were picked up with another person who was committing the crime, and since their cases were not urgent, they fell through the cracks. This is the reality. The nightmare of the mass incarceration system. Yes, many women there have committed violent crimes, and have taken lives, but many have been arrested for small amounts of weed, or for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You think you are going into a huge prison and will experience violent energy, you know, just like on TV, or OITNB, but instead you go in seeing women, of all ages, sitting there, powerless, aimless. They have friends in each other, and some enemies, but they do what they have to do to keep their minds free, even while locked up behind bars. They truly do not have much at all, just their suppressed creativity, and dreams to be back home with their families, their children, their babies. When we go in to play music for them, we go in with the intention of gifting them some joy, and in turn, it ends up they gift us. They gift us perspective. And somehow, I feel guilty to say, gratitude. Gratitude for my freedom. Gratitude for being there for these women. Gratitude that I wasn’t DJing for violent men. I don’t think I could handle that.


Two weeks ago, I was asked to DJ again at Rikers. I was overjoyed at the thought of seeing the familiar faces of those women I got to know via singing and being penpals. The best part for me as a DJ–I would get to play tracks I didn’t get to play the last time. Two women requested house music, and I had run out of time. I was going to bring it! I couldn’t be more musically happy…

But then, the night before the event, I was told, nope, I wasn’t DJing for the women. This time I would be DJing for the men. I panicked.

Bringing Music to Murderers, Rapists, Thieves, and Innocents

I sat in my studio and scanned my body of all the sudden tension, questioning my panic. Why exactly was I petrified of DJing for the male inmates? What came to mind were stories I was told by women who either worked in prisons or volunteered in prisons; I was told of stories of men harassing them verbally, rubbing themselves, spitting at them… and although my friends were safe, it was still frightening and traumatizing to be faced with that energy. Having experienced domestic violence and sexual assault in my lifetime, this triggered so much from me. I texted four of my friends saying “I am DJing for male inmates, I am freaking out, I need a pep talk.” Am I voluntarily subjecting myself to something I do not need to?

What my beautiful friends told me was brilliant. Go in, knowing that no matter what, I am safe. Go in, knowing that whatever foul energy the inmates direct towards me is a result of society, a complex multi-layered “onion,” something to not take personally. I was told that I should indeed expect violent, aggressive energy. It comes with the territory of a prison. One friend told me not to go, as I am still healing from my own experience of violence and sexual assault, but oddly, when she said that, I did not immediately agree and back out. Instead, I leaned in even harder.

I decided to go in knowing that I am there to give love, play music, heal something in me that distrusts men after my own traumatic experiences. I knew that if I backed out, last minute, I would for sure regret it and obsess about it, and consider it a lost moment for self-improvement, a failure of sorts. But even though I had made up my mind to go and DJ for the male inmates, I was still extremely nervous about it. I could not sleep. I tossed and turned for hours, stared up into the ceiling until finally at 4:34 a.m., I jumped out of bed and grabbed the bottle of NyQuil on my shelf. I gulped a mouthful, laid back and closed my eyes.


I opened my eyes to broad daylight and the sound of cars and buses, feeling universally calm I looked at my phone to check the time. Oh crap, 11 am! All calmness now gone, I messaged Robert, the head coach of the literacy program, that I had NyQuiled myself and didn’t know how alert I could be in a couple of hours when we’d be setting up at Rikers. I told him I was so foggy and would be more like a low key sound engineer than an amped-up DJ. He sent me a heart emoji as a reply.

I wrapped up XLR cables and my headphones. I closed my eyes and told myself to calm down. To distract myself I reached for my phone and saw I had text messages from my pep talk friends reminding me I was to be of wonderful service today. One message from one of my girlfriends said, “you are the strongest woman I know.” I couldn’t agree with her at all in that moment.

I sat in front of my set list and deleted it. I was told to find the clean versions of rap music to spin for them. I knew even the clean versions had violent lyrics, and something in me did not want to play violent music to potentially violent folks, so I started over, chose instrumentals, three Aloe Blacc tracks and one Kendrick Lamar track. This felt perfect. I packed up, waited for my guitarist and percussionist, and happily (albeit NyQuil-groggy) hit the road for Rikers.

We arrive at the Rikers Island entrance guard booth, submit our IDs and receive our passes. A pair of coyotes approach my DJ gear. Yes. Coyotes. In New York City. I considered them to be some form of protection. Too bad the city doesn’t feel that way. (link to NY Daily News article)

Once over the Rikers Island bridge, we arrive at the mens prison we are assigned to. We go through layer after layer of security, no lavender bars here, our team of music bringers is lead by the kind, towering officers into the space we would perform for the inmates. A loud buzzing from some sort of electrical short greeted us in the empty gymnasium that soon got a delivery of empanadas we would dive into after soundcheck. Robert noticed that I had removed the DJ logo from my laptop cover, something I did the night before when all I could think about were rapists and murderers. “Oh, no DJ sign?” he said. I shook my head no. That would be my one feminine-protection compromise, in case there was one inmate who would get attached to me, I wanted to preempt that. All it would take is one to ruin my experience. Robert asks me, “how should I introduce you, then?” I said, “surprise me.”

Warming up, Ray Santiago on the piano, Smax Music on the guitar, MelimeL on the djembe, me with a triangle in one hand, adjusting the beats at my DJ booth with my other hand, Robert on the mic, we are told that inmates are coming down the hall; we embolden our music. To my surprise, expecting huge, muscular angry men, the first group of young men enter the gymnasium in a single line, quite low key. They get an empanada, and get directed to be seated at the bleachers near us. We play, they head bounce, munching on empanadas and sipping on soda, a treat. Robert gets a set of claves and puts them in the hands of one inmate who comes sits with us, keeping rhythm with the wood sticks. Robert begins his emcee magic and introduces each one us of to the men. He introduces me as DJ NyQuil. How perfect. I give out a real, actual LOL, and he asks the young men if anyone knew how to rock a mic. Without hesitation, one broad-shouldered young man stands up, comes to the mic while we are cooking up a hiphop-salsa-reggae vibe and he spits a fierce seemingly never-ending flow that floored us all. MelimeL and I kept staring at each other like “wow, this is why we do this.” The talent hidden inside Rikers Island was showing itself over and over with each new group of men (called a house) that came in as the previous house was escorted out. Only until the last two groups of “houses” did any type of aggression surface. Chest puffing and posturing from one house to the other across the bleachers went down, correction officers got in between them, squashing the testosterone flare-up. We looked at each other, a little concerned, but we knew what to do should a fight break out; earlier, we were given instructions to leave gear behind and run to the opposite side of the gymnasium, should a fight break up. Real talk.

After the last group of men left the gymnasium, we packed up, and I felt like an ass for expecting to be assaulted, expecting to experience the worst of men. It really wasn’t like that at all. These men were trapped, and I found myself even wondering if they deserved to be locked up. I walk up to one of the guards and say, “wow, I was really wrong. I guess I expected really aggressive and violent men.” The guard says to me, “Oh many of them ARE violent. One of these guys stabbed his mom multiple times, and when she wasn’t dead enough, he shot her in the head. Oh, they are violent. Not all of them, but some are very. Some of them are totally innocent. Some of them are very guilty.” You wouldn’t even detect it. Somehow, music soothes even the most troubled soul.

I didn’t come to judge. I came to grow. I came to learn about myself, about the inmates; that these folks, locked up, are human and deserve to be treated as such. I know, it’s a challenge to be kind to people who have committed crimes, crimes so vile and too dark to describe. But still, that was my role, to be the light, even if just for a few hours.

There’s so much talent behind bars. A couple of videos below. Hit play…


Massive love to our friends at Rikers Island, Literacy for Incarcerated Teens, Galinsky Coaching, Smax Music, Piano Ray, Libby Moore, and Kwame Binea Shakedown.