Sounds of the Surveilled

The Old Richmond City Jail. Photograph by John Dooley

Andy McGraw

A network of social-legal structures segregates Richmond’s soundscape across racial and class lines, often rendering populations targeted for incarceration inaudible to the larger community. These structures are a form of censorship that impedes the production of public knowledge that would serve the ethical demands of racial justice. We cannot substantially address the problems of mass incarceration if we cannot hear, and do not listen to, the voices of those directly experiencing it. Understanding and explaining the complexity of the carceral soundscape is a first step to imagining the sonic architecture of social change.

This section of the AudibleRVA project discusses a music archive that has been produced at the Richmond City Jail beginning in 2013. The program was suspended in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. By that time the archive included over 800 tracks. Some of these are fragments of unfinished beats, most are completed, collaborative tracks.

Background: Andy McGraw

Realness, Place, and Snitching in Richmond City Jail Rap Lyrics (Multi-Part): Will Roberts (University of Richmond Class of 2021)

Hyper-Individualism in 16 Bars and the Richmond City Jail: Will Roberts (University of Richmond Class of 2021)

Flow and Timbre in RCJ Tracks: Jack Anderson (University of Richmond Class of 2021)

Regardless of jail policy, we believe that the artists themselves are the full and sole owners of their intellectual property as well as the recordings themselves. All references to specific tracks on this site are fully anonymized and excerpted, even when residents indicated on their consent and release forms that they could be named in the archive. They remain anonymized, and our examples restricted to very short excerpts, because incarcerated individuals do not have the freedom to truly give voluntary consent and because we do not own or have the right to freely distribute their compositions. All audio clips are restricted to short excerpts.

If you are the creator of one of the tracks mentioned on the site, and would like to have references removed, to be fully attributed, and/or to publish your work here in its entirety, please email

I am largely sympathetic to the rationale for limiting ethnographic research in jails and prisons, while simultaneously being wary of the large-scale consequences of restrictions on the production of public knowledge about mass incarceration. See McGraw (2020) for a detailed analysis of the ethical issues involved.


The Richmond City Justice Center (RCJC pictured below) was built in 2014 to replace the overcrowded Richmond City Jail (RCJ, pictured above), itself built in the mid 1960s to replace the notorious Virginia State Penitentiary on Spring Street, originally built in 1796. Designed to house 800 residents, by 2005 the RCJ’s population hovered around 1400 due to higher arrest rates and a policy of housing felons unable to be accommodated within the crowded state prisons. In 2016, Richmond Virginia’s overall poverty rate was twenty-five percent (against a thirteen percent national average), but the poverty rate in the neighborhoods that many of the jail residents grew up in was around sixty percent. In 2015, Richmond was fifty percent Black, forty-five percent White, while the male population of the jail (ninety percent of the total) was eighty-seven percent Black, with a sixth-grade average education. Its residents are primarily refugees of job precarity and dispossession. Some are addicts or have mental disabilities.

The Richmond City Justice Center; image from Style Weekly

In March 2013 I (McGraw) received an email from the education director of the Richmond City Jail asking if I could perform in the jail’s mess hall. I offered first to present a music workshop. In my first visit I was led through the guts of the old facility, a dilapidated building housing over twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold. A staff member led me into the narrow, cramped education room in the basement to observe one of the poetry workshops facilitated by faculty from Virginia Commonwealth University. Many residents rapped their poetry; Hispanic ICE detainees grabbed an old, beat up guitar and sang original corrido. This, I thought to myself, is a music program. Knowing my wealthy university had a closet full of slightly outdated studio gear, I asked residents if they would like to start a recording and production program, to which several enthusiastically responded: “Let’s start next week!”

I began coming in weekly to facilitate the program, sometimes bringing in guest performers and teachers. By December of that year residents had become more fluent with the equipment and software than I was and my role transitioned to “gopher,” backup engineer, and occasional “session musician.”

In September 2019 we opened an “outside” studio for released residents at UR Downtown. I facilitated weekly sessions at both the RCJC and the UR Downtown studio until March 2020, when the programs were temporarily suspended due to the COVID pandemic.

Performing Music in the RCJ Sanctuary. Photo by Style Weekly.


McGraw, Andy. 2020. “Ethical Friction: Ethnomusicological Perspectives on Music in the Richmond City Jail.” In the Oxford Handbook on Applied Ethnomusicology. Edited by Beverley Diamond and Salwa Castelo-Branco. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.