Singing behind bars: Higher Ground providing a tune to a life on the outside

Higher Ground

There are many instruments for change inside the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center, but one of the latest has the men at the facility finding music to help them prepare and feel closer to life after incarceration. 

That’s why Higher Ground isn’t just the name of a band: It’s a mission. 

As Local 4 News has shown, the prison works to provide the skills to the men inside so they don’t return to the system.

It’s been by changing the conventions of corrections to provide men inside with greater freedom and opportunities. 

Higher Ground Vocalist Richard Piczello said, “There are so many things within this institution that mimic being out in society. The free movement. Being able to go to commissary whenever you want to, it’s like being out in society going to the store but being a part of the band, being able to come over where and practice, being able to put on shows with a great group of guys.”

That bond can be seen a jam session is about to begin.

Richard said, “We all come together as one team. It’s like we’re all different parts but one body, so everybody puts in their talents and comes together.”

But forget for a moment this is a prison and these men are inmates.

Higher Ground Pianist Will Hull said, “This is the first place I’ve been able to express myself in the best way possible.”

Because when they start playing the notes, that’s what they do. 

Founder and bass guitar player Robert Beard said, “It’s serenity for me because it doesn’t matter for me if I sound really bad when I’m playing or if I sound really good, I’m in a whole different world. You know, I’m not incarcerated in my mind, so I feel free. You know I feel good, I don’t feel stressed out, anxious. I fell like I should be, happy.”

Six men are at the core of this musical effort. 
There’s Richard, the singer.

“When I sing is I know that somebody out there is listening and I know that from most people it can hit the heart, and you don’t know at that time what that person is going through so I think that’s pretty awesome to have that gift to reach others,” said Richard.

Robert plays the bass guitar.
“I’ve been playing music since I was 13 on and off. I had a really good friend I went to school with, we went to school together, he played music, and he got me really interested and taught me a led zeppelin song with two strings on this really crappy guitar, and I was stuck from there on,” Robert said. 

Mason Hass is the drummer. He plays without shoes.
Mason Hass said, “These are some real guys that I can trust and lean on when times get tough.”

On the classical guitar, that’s Justin.

It’s Will’s hands that glide over the keyboard.

Will said, “Just not being able to see my kids, that’s been stressful so when it does get to me, I come here, and I get on the piano, and I play with these guys, and I forget about all my problems.” 

And Murphy is showing to be quite an impressive performing on the bass.

Murphy Falgout said, “Six months ago, I couldn’t even play the bass and learning the bass, it gives me a sense of accomplishment.”

Together they make up Higher Ground.

Robert said, “We’re not just trying to get by, we’re trying to lead by example and the name of the band, kind of portrays that.”

Mason, Murphy and Robert formed the origins of this ensemble. Three months ago getting the green light from Kewanee administration.

Mason said, “It’s a giant outlet. It’s my escape from reality. I can kind of cope with what’s going on in my life by releasing it through music.”

Many in this band came from the Praise and Worship Band, but the members were looking for more opportunities to play and practice an instrument.

“It’s an avenue to the free world. It’s something that everybody can relate to cause everybody likes music in some shape or form, so it’s something we have common with the free society,” said Murphy.

Robert said, “You would never think it would happen in IDOC [Illinois Department of Corrections], but here they made that possible.”

That’s in part because the Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center takes a different approach that makes this music possible, which sees the men focused on reconciling and reform.

Richard said, “A lot of the guys that are in this band and in this facility they want to be better fathers, better husbands, better men for their communities so to be able to get together and do something like this, to give back to our community here you know, within Kewanee Life Skills Re-Entry Center is good.”

Even though the rhythm is just starting, these members will cycle through.

“We here, we’re short, so it’s not like a thing where we can really get our roots in but we can get it where we can find guys that want to learn or have the musical talent, and that can take the reigns and keep it going. Because to me, music can bring positive things in every situation,” said Robert.

Will on the piano has just a month until he heads back home.

Will said, “I’m going to try and live my life the best as possible and be positive and be a positive role model to my kids, to my family to everybody else.”

And Will also said this talent will be a connection to grow the bonds with his three young kids.

“They’re already looking into drums and piano as well so I’m excited to see what they know and maybe they can teach me something,” said Will.

That goal can be seen in the men as they play. 

“My son plays a little guitar, so to play with him a little bit here and he has friends in bands so just to connect with them on a deeper level,” said Murphy. “I’ve been incarcerated for about 20 years, so I’ve been away from my family for a long time and that, to connect with my son again on that level, again is really huge.”

“Upon re-entering, I’d like to be part of maybe my local church and be part of their worship group as well, and aside from that, like teaching my son or any family members musical skills. Just see where it leads,” Mason said. “I’m sure there’s doors open that I’m sure to walk through.”

That’s why the hope is this will be a legacy for the men yet to come to Kewanee.

“it’s not only just the music, I mean it’s not only just the music because we have conversations; we bond with one another, so it really takes you out of that mindset, that prison mentality,” said Richard.

He added, “I’ve never experienced something like this during my incarceration, and I think this is a huge blessing to a lot of us men here and hopefully, for the other men waiting in other institutions to come here.”

In addition to playing covers, they also created original works. 
Just a few weeks ago, they performed at a graduation ceremony for more than 60 inmates.

Richard said, “Be able to grow, and we’d be able to do more concerts life for different events through the year: Hispanic Heritage, Black History, Fourth of July, things like that, Christmas and just give back to the guys around here.”

Much of this is done during the band members’ downtime between programs and jobs. 

After forming the band, they also started teaching other men at Kewanee who to play instruments.

“There’s nothing negative about wanting to get together, learn how to play music, just teach each other what we know,” said Robert.

Staff at the facility are also working with Higher Ground to provide lessons and assistance.

Administrators said it is a way to teach and reinforce different skills that are vital on the outside.

Many of the instruments are a holdover from when Kewanee was a youth detention center. 

People interested in donating musical instruments to the program can call the facility at (309) 852-4601.

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