New Folsom Prison Blues is an album in collaboration between inmates at New Folsom Prison (CSP Sacramento) and songwriter Zoe Boekbinder. The album consists of songs written by inmates and poems and raps by inmates that Boekbinder has borrowed and, for them, invented melodies. The performers on the album will be a broad cast of musicians and songwriters, including Boekbinder, but excluding the inmates (due to prison regulations). The objective is to bring the stories out into the community even if the people they belong to must remain imprisoned. The profits from the album will be donated, in part, to the arts program at New Folsom. Any remaining funds will be put towards starting arts programs in other prisons and in underprivileged communities. Programs run by paroled inmates will be prioritized for funding through this program. This project will also lay a foundation for more collaborations like it in the future. This project is possible with the support of the William James Association.
In May 2010, Zoe Boekbinder paid her first visit to New Folsom Prison, a maximum security facility outside of Sacramento, CA. She has been volunteering there since. She plays concerts and teaches workshops in songwriting. The prison holds approximately 3, 000 male inmates. The arts program there is unique among California prisons, and is partly left over from a state program, which lost funding in 2010, called Arts-in-Corrections. What is left of the program is kept running by inmates, with the help of an inspiring member of prison staff, Jim Carlson. Carlson used to be the artist facilitator in the days of Arts-in-Corrections but now holds the title of recreational therapist. On top of his duties for the prison he also raises support in the community to keep the prison stocked with art supplies and musical instruments. Carlson has attempted to retire several times, after almost three decades in prisons and prison administration, but has yet to succeed. He knows that when he leaves, it is unlikely that much of what he and the inmates have built will survive. At present there are limited funds and not enough to hire teachers to come in but many of the inmates run classes and teach drawing, poetry, and guitar. There are also concerts by inmate assembled bands. Carlson is constantly fighting for the inmates’ freedom to facilitate these classes and events.
When Arts-in-Corrections was still alive, there were studies conducted that show its effectiveness in lowering recidivism rates for inmates involved. It also lowers the incidence of violence within the prison. In fact, New Folsom’s general population yard (or C yard), is known as a “soft” yard among those incarcerated there and elsewhere. It has a reputation for having less gang activity than any other maximum security prison.
Art programs are not only for the quality of life of the inmates involved, but also for the safety of those who encounter these inmates once they are released. There is little rehabilitation taking place in modern prisons and the arts is proven to be an effective and low cost solution.
“I’m feeling like I’m getting something up off of my chest.” said Alex (Shell Dog) when asked what he thought about Zoe using his rap for a song.
“It tickles the shit out of me,” Ken says when asked what he thinks of Zoe’s version of his song. “The biggest compliment one songwriter can pay to another is to use their material.”