Eighteen-year-old Alexis was all focus last week as he carefully fingered chords on a glimmering new guitar.
University of Texas-Pan American music performance student Jesus De Leon, 20, helped direct his hand placement on the instrument as strumming rang through the room.
“I like it, because when I was a child I’d hear the music and I’d go (drumming) with the broom,” Alexis said of having music in his life.
The teenager has been incarcerated for two years at Evins Regional Juvenile Center, a center for youth aged 13 to 19 who have been convicted of felonies such as aggravated assault, murder and other crimes.
Growing up, his great grandfather and grandmother played the guitar, his uncles played accordion and Alexis played banda tambourine in Mexico. But serving his sentence didn’t come with music until late July, when the center began a guitar program with the help of Hermes Music.
Now Alexis is part of a group of 10 who meet twice a week for beginning lessons. The Monitor withheld their last names at the center’s request to protect the identities of juvenile offenders.
“These are the type of kids who need our help,” said Citlalli Garcia, coordinator of the Hermes Music Foundation. “You’re replacing the time that would be spent doing other things … and it incites in them to want to keep going, to keep creating.”
The foundation is donating all the guitars to the program, which the students get to keep when they are released.
UTPA students have been working with the inmates to gain experience. De Leon, an aspiring music teacher, said he was drawn to the task for personal reasons: a couple of his own family members have found themselves in trouble too.
After working with the teenagers, he’s impressed.
“That I’ve seen such progress in such a short time shows me they want to learn,” he said. “These kids have a lot more dedication than people who have a guitar in their house every day.”
Evins has sought to move forward recently, after three employees were arrested in June, accused of mistreating young inmates and destroying evidence. A study conducted by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin showed inmate violence at the facility spiked last year, after auditors from the Department of Justice left the facility.
Evins Superintendent Donald Brooks said there had been guitar classes at the center long ago, and it was good to have them back again.
“It gives them an outlet to express their anger,” he said. “Almost every kid here can rap. This is another outlet.”
“It also allows them to showcase their talent. Despite what they’ve done, there’s still a lot of good in them.”
Alexis said his music-oriented family was encouraged when they heard he was learning and promised to keep teaching him when he is released next year.
Rafael, 18, a former trumpet player in high school, said he had always wanted to learn the guitar and said he had especially connected to De Leon’s mentorship.
When he gets out, he wants to play in a Tejano band.
“It keeps me out of trouble in the dorms,” he said of music. “I’m learning something and maybe I can make a career of it.”