The J6 Prison Choir's 'Patriotic' Ballad With Donald Trump Is A Riot. Literally.
In early March Donald J. Trump and the J6 Prison Choir released a song — the audio alternates the choir singing The Star-Spangled Banner, with Trump reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and ends with the prisoners chanting “U-S-A! — that’s now available for purchase. It became Apple Music’s top downloaded song on March 11.
From the audio, it’s not clear whose voices are in the choir or where they’re calling in from. Various reports have stated “jail” but didn’t specify whether it was Washington DC’s Central Detention Facility. Vanity Fair reported that the men in the choir were convicted of the crimes they were charged with, which would suggest that some called from a Bureau of Prisons facility.
I don’t think it’s possible to know who’s on that recording and where the crooning came from. An email to the spokesperson for the Washington DC Department of Corrections about the location of choir members remains unanswered.
It’s most likely that a number of men in the Central Detention Facility sang the song. The males confined in the jail are 87 percent Black; administrators decided to house J6 defendants together, away from others. The segregation has been compared to solitary confinement but the ways the men live don’t line up with that.
Reports from Washingtonian magazine describe a group of men who are allowed out of their single-occupant cells for five and a half hours per day; in contrast, solitary confinement restricts a person to his cell for 23 and a half hours per day. In solitary confinement, inmates can’t congregate or do anything together. To pass time, the Sixers often sing the national anthem in unison.
Plopping these defendants in one cell block is not tantamount to the hole. Rather, it’s a form of correctional management to prevent these Why-O’s from getting into even more legal trouble when they would eventually scrap with other general population inmates.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter who’s in the choir because it’s not the singers but the song that’s the problem. The song’s still a riot – literally. It’s a second insurrection involving the former president.
“A riot is a wild or violent disorder, confusion or disturbance” according to the Central Detention Facilty’s Inmate Handbook. The handbook doesn’t explore the difference between disorder and disturbance but it doesn’t need to do that. Disciplinary rules are notoriously vague so that any behavior that staff want to punish becomes eligible.
The standard for what counts as a riot in prison is low, almost impossibly low. In practical terms, a prison riot is two or more inmates acting in concert without a direct order from staff. Singing together is a riot. Signing a petition for better conditions is a riot. A hunger strike is a riot. Two or more inmates writing letters is a riot. It’s subjective; if someone’s bothered by an inmate’s behavior then it’s misconduct.
In 2020, Edward Terrell Walton and two other prisoners wrote an open letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and corrections chief Heidi Washington complaining about conditions and visiting policy. The warden of Michigan’s Chippewa Correctional Facility immediately placed Walton in solitary confinement and charged the three with inciting a riot.
Walton also sent an email through the JPay electronic communications system to private parties on the outside asking them to call the warden and tell her if she doesn’t make the changes the prisoners want that there would “be a protest scheduled to take place at this prison to make national attention out of the situation.” That gets closer to the commonly accepted understanding of disturbance but demonstrations outside the facility aren’t, and can’t be, inmate controlled. Holding a prisoner responsible for a free person’s actions is a stretch. Calling it a riot makes it even longer.
But it's easy to see why Walton landed in solitary confinement. Inside the prison, "there is no such thing as a peaceful demonstration," Michigan Department of Corrections spokesperson Chris Gautz said to a reporter from the Detroit Free Press about Walton’s punishment. "Prisoners are not permitted to engage in organized protest." Three men signing a letter is organized. And it’s a complaint. Therefore it’s a riot.
This isn’t some Michigan corrections curiosity. It’s the rule everywhere.
The Sixers can defend themselves against accusations of inciting a riot by arguing that it wasn’t a protest; it was commerce, a fund-raising effort for the families of the people who are incarcerated for their involvement with the 2021 attack on the Capitol — and democracy. Or pointing out that the national anthem doesn’t address conditions in the only jail in the country’s capital. Or maybe they’ll counter that none of the singers acted in concert with each other, that each choir member recorded his piece alone and the producer layered the recordings over each other. Accusing them of rioting might be overkill.
But other, less serious offenses await them in the Inmate Disciplinary Code of Offenses, violations like “Interference with the Orderly Operation of the Facility” which includes “Engaging in loud or boisterous talk, laughter, whistling, or other vocal expression, if such is, or may tend to be, disruptive of order or a disturbance to others.” Any iteration of these traitors singing our anthem would count.
Many incarcerated people don’t understand that even relatively innocent actions, if done in a group, can be interpreted as overtures to violence. Prison/jail is a place where the same activity that is approved in one instance becomes threatening in another. When inmates are accused of these offenses, the argument centers on what their intent was, and quite frankly, that can be hard to discern. It’s why prison discipline gets so messy.
While every salient detail isn’t really known about the Sixers’ rendition of the national anthem, this is not in dispute: the singers either knew that what they were doing could be interpreted as a riot or they didn’t know. There’s no in-between.
Either way, the song sung by several men is still problematic. If the choir members didn’t know that their sing-along sessions could be interpreted as a riot, then they’re not paying attention and haven’t caught on to what the rules are. Inmates who are concerned about behaving better clue themselves into the ways the contours of the social compact get reshaped in different places and they’re mindful not to break the contract again. Ignorance isn’t a defense here.
If they did know that their patriotic ditty would be subjected to scrutiny as to whether it was a protest or not and possibly labeled another riot, then they just don’t care about the directives and rules of prison life, many of which are designed to keep the place safe and secure, even if they are often applied in a way that seems oppressive.
If the Sixers knew that it could be a riot, then they’re not afraid of any group effort as long as it serves and pleases Trump. That’s what got them their DC digs in the first place.
Any way it’s analyzed, the ballad doesn’t bode well.
Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.
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