MONROE CORRECTIONAL FACILITY, Wash. — Aaron Howerton tells me from the wooden floor of the gymnasium – where we sit leaning against a brick wall – that music has always been a part of his DNA.
“My mother used to put the speaker up to her stomach and play Beatles and Elvis and Bee Gees,” Aaron smiles as he explains, “so I was listening to all that before I was even born.”
Aaron Howerton is tall, thin, and wears glasses. He has salt and pepper hair and a voice you would never know is responsible for the hypnotic vocals ringing from your speakers if you’re one of the numerous people who have purchased his albums.
Though his talent and charisma are undeniable, what’s truly remarkable is that he’s managed to become such from behind brick walls and razor wire. Even if you’ve never heard of him, Aaron is a rock star — he’s currently in three bands, and his musicality and passion for the craft has inspired countless prisoners throughout this sprawling state.
Born in Everett, Washington on June 20, 1975, he grew up in what he describes as a rough and culturally diverse neighborhood.
“My best friend was Black,” Aaron says, “but I was always surrounded by bikers, truck drivers, thieves, killers and drug addicts.”
His parents divorced when he was two, and a heated custody battle ended with Aaron being placed with his dad, and his mother becoming little more than an apparition in his early memories. When he was 10, he was moved out of the city, and into rural Monroe, Washington.
“When we moved to Monroe,” he recalls, “I was really alone and had to fend for myself. I slept in a tent for the first year, and my dad had to hose me off outside to give me a shower. I caught head lice once, so he siphoned diesel from his semi-truck and put it in my hair.”
To make matters worse, Aaron was diagnosed with juvenile Parkinson’s disease and told it would progress over the years. This not only rendered it nearly impossible for the dirty, shaky kid to make friends in a new town, but it assured he was bullied and made fun of. Then, at 11, while living in a friend’s attic, Aaron Howerton picked up his first guitar.
“My friend showed me a power chord, and it was all downhill from there,” Aaron says. “I didn’t play every day because I didn’t have one of my own, but every time I saw one, I picked it up and tried to make noise.”
He says his disability is an asset.
“It’s actually helped with the mechanics. Playing guitar, you use a lot of fast twitch nerve endings, and my condition helps with reaction so I’m quicker than a lot of people because I’m constantly on edge,” Aaron says. “My hands are faster, and better coordinated when they’re fixed, but when they’re free, they’re not as well off.”
As the years passed, the weight of poverty nudged Aaron towards a life of partying hard and surviving by any means. That eventually found him involved in the robbery and killing of 21-year-old Wilder Eby in 1994. At 19, after police officers found some of Eby’s stereo equipment in his car, Aaron was sentenced to grow old and eventually die in prison.
While watching others who had been dealt the same hand embrace a hopelessness that propelled them into the depths of depravity, Aaron refused to be reduced to a mere statistic. Young, small, and unaware of what to expect, he was transferred to Clallam Bay Corrections Center (“CBCC”), a facility nicknamed “Gladiator School” by the incarcerated population because of its reputation for hosting riots, stabbings, and sexual assaults.
“When I arrived at Clallam Bay,” Aaron recounts, “they had a music room, but only medium and minimum-security guys could use it. I was in closed custody, but they asked me to come up and service the equipment. People could only use it for an hour at a time, and they had to tear down and set up within that hour. I wanted to change that.”
It took him three and a half years, but eventually, he was able to not only talk the facility into extending the time participants were allowed to use the music room, but also allow maximum security prisoners access. He says music is essential to life, especially in hopeless settings like prisons.
“I think music is more powerful than love and has more therapeutic qualities than any other thing,” Aaron says. “It’s an international language. It helps guys reflect and imagine.”
By the early 2000s, there wasn’t a music-oriented program operating in CBCC that didn’t drip with his influence — from the performances during cultural events to the chapel worship team. That’s how he became legendary. Prisoners state-wide speak of how Aaron Howerton — through music — managed to change the entire culture of the Gladiator School, and reduce the violence.
In 2012, he was transferred here, to the Monroe Correctional Complex to be closer to his father whose health had been deteriorating. Then, in 2013, his father passed away, along with what Aaron believed to be his only reason for living.
“I was gonna kill myself on August 10,” he confesses. “He died June 7, and once I got everything handled, as far as order of his estate and celebration of his life, I was gonna do it. Then a friend came up to visit and changed my mind. It just gave me a different outlook. I would have been selfish and not only denying myself but denying others of what I have to offer.”
As it turned out, he had more to offer than even he could have known. Today, Aaron Howerton is the front man for three bands, E.A. Christo, Notrewoh, The Filthy Gringo and the Mud Puppies. He’s produced for rappers and appeared on tracks with artists of every genre. He’s sold tens of thousands of albums, become a musician with credentials that rival those of free world artists, and donates all his royalties to various charities around the world. But most important are the countless individuals who have considered him a mentor over the years.
In December, Aaron stood before Washington state’s clemency board and made a case for why he should, after 27 years, be granted his freedom. Demonstrable rehabilitation and unlikelihood to reoffend are supposed to be the deciding factors, but even this poster child for clemency didn’t make the cut. That was a blow to Aaron.
Even though he’s ready to move beyond these concrete dwellings, for now this will remain his home. While that’s not what he wants, he’ll continue to touch the lives of those around him and leave his contribution to the world of music through every person who hears him play or who sits at the feet of this rocker clad in our signature Monroe Correctional white tee and khakis.