Clang! The heavy steel door snaps shut and we are locked in. This is the last of three checkpoints before heading into C Facility at New Folsom Prison, the most infamous of California’s Maximum Security Prisons. My husband James and I are guests of Jim Carlson who heads up The Arts In Corrections Program and this is day 1 of our visit.
Preparations for this trip began a year ago after having met Alaskan singer/songwriter Buddy Tabor at a performance in Nashville where he told me he thought I would be perfect for the program at Folsom. Sadly, we lost Buddy on Feb. 5th to cancer. I admired Buddy for his honesty, irreverence and his sense of humour. He was never afraid to tell it like it is, to speak his mind no matter what anyone thought. He knew he was dying and made one last trip to Folsom this past January. He had a tremendous impact on the inmates there and they on him. Buddy lives on through his music and I thank him for introducing us to Jim and this program (www.myspace.com/buddytabor).
I have to admit I felt some trepidation, never having been to a maximum-security prison or any prison for that matter. The lengthy process of background checks and security clearances took some time, but we got the go-ahead. We arrived the night before, making our way along Prison Road early the next morning. There were high razor wire fences on both sides of the road. Winding up and around a couple of hills the prison, not visible from the main road, came into view, grey walls, look-out towers, guards and the tiniest slits for windows.
Once inside the building and past our final checkpoint we walked down a long, wide corridor, past staff offices, infirmary, and a couple of guard stations where we were given the once over before heading into the “yard” where the inmates were.
Once again there was the clang of the heavy steel doors and we were in a holding area between two yards where there were some prisoners hanging around. They were all dressed in blue. We were told we were not allowed to wear blue — for obvious reasons I suppose. They looked at us with curiosity but no more than meeting strangers in the street really. We were not allowed to have a cell phone, computer, recorders, cameras or anything of that ilk. A cell phone goes for $2000 behind bars!
We were led across the holding area through another chain link fence into a 20 x 20’ room where about a dozen inmates were waiting for us. Jim had told us that it was against the rules to have any physical contact with them, and if any tried to give us anything, even a piece of paper, it had to be given to a supervisor or guard first before we were allowed to accept it. He introduced us to everyone by first name, Marty, Ken, Big C, “hello, hi, how are you”? etc., and we all sat down.
Everyone was very friendly and warm and very welcoming. The room was sparsely furnished with a couple of banquet type tables in the middle of the room and some metal chairs and large cupboards with chain link fronts on them where a few musical instruments were stored. There was an ancient dinosaur computer on a desk at the front of the room that was used for typing up lyrics mostly. There were a few posters on the walls of some of the other performers who had also spent time there, Michael Franti, Roseanne Cash, Buddy Tabor and a few CDs. Real bare bones, little colour but the blue uniforms.
I was immediately struck by how comfortable I felt. I was expecting to feel, well… I don’t know what I was expecting to feel. Intimidated, freaked, scared, trepidation, reservations, etc. but it wasn’t like that at all. I felt at ease and welcome. I think for James it was a cathartic experience. He too had spent time behind bars and had he not cleaned up and become drug and alcohol free 24 years prior to our visit to New Folsom, he could have ended up being one of the people sitting across the table from me.
I came to realize that “there but for the grace of god go I” and I’m not even a religious person. I think many of us on the outside could have ended up behind bars because of a bad decision, like getting behind the wheel after one to many drinks, etc.
After all the introductions James and I talked a little about our lives and what brought us together and what lead us to being coming to Folsom in the first place. We weren’t told what any of the prisoners were there for and we didn’t want to know. Once the formalities were over everyone played a few songs in a round robin song circle type of situation. There were some incredibly gifted writers and some songs that really stuck with me. One was written by a man named Marty Williams who had been in Folsom for over 30 years. He was around the same age as me. I couldn’t imagine spending 30 years behind bars. Like most of the men we met he will never get out. The first song he and a fellow inmate and friend did blew me away. It was a blues song that was sung by a big brawny African American man named Big C. Big C is a member of The Crips. The gang is known to be involved in murders, robberies, and drug dealing. I never would have guessed it by talking with him and hearing him sing. What a voice. He sang Marty’s song called Chains.
I had a sweet companion
as sweet as summer rain
she’d have lived and died for me
she’d have rocked away my pain
I could have had love
I could have had love
But I chose these chains
Well folks, there’s not enough room to finish this article in this issue so I will leave it off here and continue with an installment at www.bcmusicianmag.com. It’s been a great experience for me writing these articles and I thank all the folks at BC Musician Magazine for all the great work they’re doing. Until next time…see you somewhere on This Winding Road.