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Makin’ Music in Juvie

The need for prison reform within our country is a well-supported and documented void within our social system.  While many efforts have been made within adult prisons, there is still great need for attention within juvenile detention.  In a 2012 study, this very need was addressed through a qualitative study on the implementation of music education in an Australian juvenile detention facility.


The benefits from providing a music education for prisoners has boasted improvements in participants’ self-esteem, discipline, sense of purpose, self-respect, and dignity (Barrett & Baker, 2012).

How often do we really think about the needs of kids who get sent to juvenile detention?  As music teachers, we probably completely forget that these students even exist.  I mean, really, how often do we have students in our own classes who end up in juvie?  I have never, not once, in 9 years of teaching, had a student who was sentenced to juvenile detention.  I am ashamed to admit this, but even I have forgotten about these students and their needs until I came across this fascinating article.  The reality is that juvenile detention is not only for incarceration, but is also meant to be a form of rehabilitation as well as education.

The kind of education provided for students in juvenile detention often consists of literacy classes and neglects the “electives.”  This is actually incredibly unfortunate, because often, the kids who end up in juvenile detention suffer from a lack of discipline, a lack of social understanding, and critical thinking… Hmmmm, what class provides all of these necessary skills AND is never feels like work?  US!  That would be US!  MUSICAL ENSEMBLES!  “Engagement in music learning in a range of settings can be transformative of notions of self and identity,” (Barrett & Baker, 245).

Okay, so let’s get real here.  Here are some really shocking statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2006 – 2007 report:

  1. In just one year, 9,540 kids (10 – 17 years old) went through the juvenile justice system

  2. 90% of the juvenile detainees are male

  3. children in detention on an average has increased from 520 to 642 in just two years

  4. 93% of the young people in juvie are between 16 and 17 years old

In 2004, the Australian Children’s Music Foundation (ACMF) started music programs in Australian juvenile detention facilities and has successfully implemented programs in 16 centers across the country.  Students were asked to participate in this study and 17 out of 22 at one center agreed to participate.  Participants learned to play guitar and drums.  They learned to read music and even to write songs.

The students in this program not only learned to make music, but experienced a wealth of extra-musical learning outcomes.  These outcomes increased self-esteem, engagement with learning tasks, confidence, and positive social behaviors (251).  One of the inmates even said, “Instead of getting in trouble, just sitting there and play tunes, and stuff.”  One student was so effected that he went so far as to dream about “helping out in the community, yeah.  Helping other people learn music.  Yeah, teach them,” (251).  HOW INCREDIBLE IS THIS?!?!?

In some cases, the students even were able to re-define themselves instead of as “criminal,” into “musician.”  The other staff members even noticed a greater willingness to learn in other areas of their education thanks to the development of their learning and communication skills.  Additionally, there is a greater level of trust between the residents and the staff as they make music together and experience the exposure of music-making and the “fame” that comes afterwards.

Students who participated in this program not only developed greater communication and social skills, but began to develop philosophies on education.  “Participants suggest that educators should be able to talk with their students and provide clear explanations of tasks and learning expectations.  One student also noted that learning involves a mutual obligation between students and teachers,” (256).

After reading this article, I desperately want to know what happened to the participants after participation in the music program.  This article is an incredible testament to what we do every single day and reminds me of our duty as music educators to spread the love everywhere!  When I move into the college-teaching realm, this is something that I am going to consider.  How amazing would it be for pre-service music educators to be a pat of the rehabilitation of criminals and to share music education with the most destitute of children?

Barrett, M. S., & Baker, J. S. (2012). Developing learning identities in and through music: A case study of the outcomes of a music programme in an Australian juvenile detention centre. International Journal of Music Education, 30(3), 244–259.

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