Brian Willis grew up in Park Manor, near 69th Street and King Drive on the South Side. He’s been incarcerated for 25 years and is currently serving a life sentence for murder at Stateville Correctional Center in Crest Hill, Ill. 

Today, now age 43, Willis feels like he’s locked “in a cage that’s no bigger than your bathroom for 20 hours out [of] the day.” He shares that space with one other person. They have to bathe and use the restroom in front of one another in the same space.

“It’s very challenging because it’s a very inhumane situation,” Willis explained. “It’s a lot of things that take your dignity, your humanity, away that make you hopeless and feel like you’re not worth anything.”

On Tuesday, Willis stood beside eight other incarcerated people at Stateville for the launch of Rebirth of Sound, a new music production program spearheaded by Oscar- and Grammy Award-winning artist Common.

Rebirth of Sound is the first of its kind at an Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC) facility. It aims to rehabilitate incarcerated people by teaching them the ins and outs of music production, songwriting, audio engineering and more.

Back in the day, Willis participated in rap freestyles out in the neighborhood. While in prison, he’s written poetry and raps. He’s hopeful for the new skills that he’ll learn in the program. 

“I want to learn the business side of it and also see if I can start my own label, my own publishing,” Willis said. “So, I want to be an owner. I want ownership. We need more ownership out of our community.”

Chicago native Common sat in a circle with Brian Willis and other incarcerated people at Stateville for the launch of Rebirth of Sound. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE
Brian Willis, age 43, wants to learn the business side of the music game. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

Rebirth of Sound is the brainchild of Arielle ‘Ari’ Williams, a criminal defense attorney from Englewood. Last year, Williams said she was inspired to do something for men in Illinois prisons, since she knows many of them like to rap. She researched music studios in prisons and found that musician and songwriter Antony Ablan launched a similar program at Cook County Jail in 2018. 

Soon, a family friend connected Williams to Common. A South Side native, Common is a known advocate for incarcerated people’s rights and criminal justice reform. Last year, he launched the #WeMatterToo campaign, calling for the release of people in prison who served out most of their sentences and had preexisting health conditions that put them at risk of illness or death from COVID-19. 

Between March 2020 and June 2021, there were more than 10,000 reported cases of COVID-19 and 88 deaths in Illinois state prisons, according to data from the Marshall Project.

Williams shared her idea to create a music studio at Stateville with Common, and he liked it. 

“I want the men who are incarcerated to come home and be happy, positive, and be role models and leaders because I know they can,” Williams said. “I want people to give them a chance for change, to have grace and know that they are people too.”

"They definitely have ownership to anything they create. This is theirs," Common said Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE
"I've been trying to get my stuff [music] out for 30 years," said 57-year-old Dennis Bailey [center]. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

At Tuesday’s launch, Common walked into the Stateville press conference, rapping the first few lines of the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 hit “Juicy.” Everyone in the room joined in. 

“This work right here, Rebirth of Sound, is just one of the steps towards making sure our people that are incarcerated come back home better and, while they’re in, they’re humanized,” Common said. “They get a chance to express themselves and learn about themselves.”

HOW REBIRTH THE SOUND WORKS

Rebirth of Sound is a 12-week program. Willis and eight other incarcerated people at Stateville will be the program’s first cohort, led by Ablan.

Applicants filled out surveys about their interest in music to be considered for the program. About 70 incarcerated people filled out the surveys. Nine men were chosen, screened and later interviewed by Ablan and Stateville Warden David Gomez. 

One inaugural class member, Julio Guerrero, said Rebirth of Sound offers a renewed sense of hope and purpose that is vital while serving time. 

“A program like this does give us hope that something might change in the future, maybe a parole bill might get passed, or they might change the Truth in Sentencing (TIS) laws, and I might be free one day,” said 37-year-old Guerrero. He’s from the Back of the Yards neighborhood, and has been incarcerated for 16 years. He was given a 48-year prison sentence on a murder conviction. 

The new music studio — located near the gymnasium and away from the cell houses — includes computer equipment, a mixing board and instruments purchased by Common’s nonprofit, Imagine Justice, and donated by audio and instrument manufacturers such as Meyer Sound, Shure and Fender. Imagine Justice was created back in 2017, and its mission is to empower communities to fight injustice wherever it appears. 

For now, the music studio will be accessible to participants only during class sessions with Ablan on Monday through Friday from between the hours of 8:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

“If they [participants] commit some sort of serious infraction and they receive a disciplinary ticket, and they’re found guilty, they would lose the privilege of being in here,” said Warden David Gomez. 

Rebirth of Sound also gives a platform to inaugural participants including Willis, Dennis Bailey and John Hall, a.k.a John the Baptist, who can spit their poems and raps on the mic. 

“I’ve been trying to get my stuff [music] out for 30 years,” said 57-year-old Bailey.

Dennis Bailey trying out the new equipment. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE
Musician and songwriter Antony Ablan [left] will lead Rebirth of Sound's first cohort at Stateville. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

Hall was a local rapper in Joliet and used the stage name “Spiderman” before being sentenced to 78 years in prison on a murder conviction. Under his new moniker, John the Baptist, he took center stage at Tuesday’s launch to share a few bars.

“Pray I exit prison, turn around, and take center stage. Pray 40 acres and a mule, a donkey and a lot of land, and the revolution is televised on a body cam. I pray for forgiveness. Pray for those who come up against us,” he rapped.

According to Common and Ablan, Rebirth of Sound participants will retain all ownership of the music created during the program. Ablan said they will upload the music to streaming platforms during the program, although plans for this haven’t been fully fleshed out. 

“They definitely have ownership to anything they create. This is theirs,” Common said. “It’s not that record company model where you create something, and the record company owns it. No. These artists own their art.”

WHAT ABOUT EARNED TIME OFF?

One key feature of Rebirth of Sound is the promise that participants will earn time off their sentences. However, it’s unclear at the moment how or in what manner time off will be applied — especially for those in the program serving life sentences.

“They’re certainly going to receive credit for their involvement in the program, but the details of it are still being fleshed out as we speak,” Stateville assistant warden of programs Kenneth L. Osborne said.

Guerrero said he’s certain he won’t receive time-off credit for completing Rebirth of Sound because of the Truth in Sentencing laws (TIS) put in place right before he was convicted at 21 years old. 

Before 1998, people who served time in Illinois state prisons could earn time off their court-appointed sentence through good behavior and participation in prison programming. A person’s sentence could be reduced by up to half, or a day off, for each day in prison, according to Restore Justice.

John Hall, a.k.a John the Baptist, giving Common a tease of his lyrical prowess. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE
A South Side native, Common is a known advocate for incarcerated people’s rights and criminal justice reform. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

However, when the TIS laws went into effect in 1998, it required that all violent offenders serve 85 percent to 100 percent of their sentences, according to the Praxis Center. Before 1998, offenders served about 44 percent of their sentences. As a result, people who commit violent crimes are spending more time incarcerated. 

Earlier this year, the Illinois State legislature passed a sweeping criminal justice reform bill that was pushed by the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus. Before Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed the bill into law, the ability to earn good time credits through various prison programs at IDOC was limited to specific programs including substance abuse, assigned jobs, behavior modification, life skills, education and more.  

The criminal justice reform bill expanded the ability for incarcerated people to earn good time credits through a wider variety of programs.

Despite this, Uptown People’s Law Center executive director Alan Mills said Guerrero is right. With the TIS law in place in Illinois as is, Guerrero will not receive time-off credit in the program. 

People sentenced to serve 100% of their sentence (generally only those convicted of murder) still are not eligible for credit,” Mills wrote on Wednesday.  

Organizations like Parole Illinois, a coalition of people inside and outside of state prisons, are organizing to reinstate parole in Illinois. The state abolished its discretionary parole in 1978.

Parole Illinois and Citizens for Parole are working together to bring legislation to Illinois that would provide fair mechanisms for review for people with long life sentences, according to Shari Stone-Mediatore, managing director of Parole Illinois.

Benny Rios [far right] is a 43-year-old incarcerated person who works closely with Parole Illinois. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

“We have 5,000 people in this state who have sentences that are so long that they will be required to grow old and die in prison with no review of whether their continued incarceration makes any sense,” Stone-Mediatore added. 

The coalition is urging state lawmakers to vote on Senate Bill 2333 during the fall veto session later this month. The coalition is coining the bill “Earned Reentry,” and is making a trip to Springfield on Oct. 20. 

“[Earned Reentry] allows for incarcerated people, especially people with long-term sentences after 20 years, to be eligible for parole, but it has to be earned. So it’s earned discretionary release,” explained Benny Rios, a man serving time at Stateville and participating in Rebirth of Sound.

Rios is a 43-year-old incarcerated person who works closely with Parole Illinois. He is currently serving a 45-year sentence on a murder conviction. He’s been in prison for 20 years. 

Rios sees programs like Rebirth of Sound as a good addition to already existing educational programs offered at Stateville through Northwestern University, DePaul University, and North Park University; all of them didn’t exist when he arrived at Stateville almost 20 years ago.

“We still want to change our lives and develop skills and do good for this environment and prepare ourselves for when we come home," said Benny Rios [front left]. Photo by ANF Chicago // The TRiiBE

To date, Rios has earned more than 150 certificates from a variety of programs such as the Prison + Neighborhood Arts/Education Program and the Inside-Out Prison Exchange program through DePaul University. He is currently in his final year of a master’s degree program that’s being provided at the prison by North Park University. 

Although these programs qualify for time-off credits, Rios has not received any time off of his sentence for completing them, according to his wife Melissa Rios. This is due to the TIS law, she said.

“It does do something to him when he gets denied [time-off credits],” she said over the phone on Wednesday. 

Despite the rejections, she said her husband still gets up every day and completes work for his master’s program. 

“They’re giving us transformative and rehabilitative programs. We don’t get to benefit from any type of incentives or anything, but we still do it,” Benny Rios said at Tuesday’s launch event. “We still want to change our lives and develop skills and do good for this environment and prepare ourselves for when we come home.”

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.