Friday, May 21, 2010

I AM Johnny Cash

On Monday, May 17, 2010 at 8:15 AM, I arrived at the front gates of New Folsom Prison, in Folsom CA. I met my "handler", Jim Carlson. Jim runs the arts program at Folsom. Most prisons don't have people like Jim and programs like this one. Jim is an artist and teaches drawing classes to the people incarcerated there. They have a music room equipped with some pretty decent gear. There is a blues band inside, I have yet to find out if they cover Folsom Prison Blues. Maybe that would be too predictable.

My friend Sassafras Nelson took the trip with me and we arrived together to meet Jim. He took us to the first check-point where we showed our IDs and got some visitor passes and signed in on a big sheet of manila cardstock. We proceeded to a second check-point, the one that gets you on the other side of the lethal fence. The fence has three layers: two incredibly tall fences with razor wire at the top sandwiched the lethal electric fence. To get through we had to sign in on another sheet and get some invisible black light stamps on our hands and go through a metal detector. On the inside were a series of ominous grey cement buildings with very small, narrow windows. This is exactly what I imagined prison would look like.

We were escorted to the library on C yard,  where the general population is housed. The room was small and had a few hundred tattered books on dark brown shelves. Some of the shelves had hand written "Off Limit" signs on them. I set up my gear in front of a large desk that had a crooked sign on it that read "No ID, No Service, No Exceptions." The room slowly filled up as I nervously plugged in my various cords into their various boxes. When I started there were about thirty people in the room. A few more filtered in throughout my set. These convicted felons were not what some might expect. They didn't look particularly tough, or dangerous, or hardened, or threatening, or mean, or really like "criminals". Sass remarked that so many of them were so young and handsome. There were also a few grey haired men who looked like they'd been there forever. One thing that surprised me was the prison fashion. The prison issue uniforms had been cut up and added to, some pants were worn backwards. Each person had a particular style, all in blue and white. One man I met, Marko, didn't look like he was wearing a uniform at all. He wore faded blue jeans and a white t-shirt, an outfit I've seen many a musician, farmer, trucker, barista, or school teacher wear.

The audience was wonderful. It wasn't much different, once I started playing, than any other audience I've played to. They were on the attentive, respectful side as far as audiences go. I took a break in the middle of my set and asked anyone who wanted to, to come up and perform. There was some hesitation at first but then someone came forward. It was Marty, who I'd met on my way in. Marty is one of the younger of the grey haired men. He is in for life with no chance for parole. He has thick glasses and plays a 12 string guitar. He played a song he wrote for a friend, his cell mate of ten years who died of Hep C. He introduced it by saying that most of the guys had heard it a hundred times. They didn't seem to care and were taken in by the performance. I later found out that Marty feels responsible for Pat's death because he feels convinced he exposed him to the virus through giving him a tattoo.

About ten guys in total came up and performed. Some read poetry, some sang R&B while the crowd clapped along, and two of the grey haired men performed an old timey blues song, one on guitar and one singing. The last song was a three part harmony and broke my heart a little. It was a hymn that was rewritten by Marty. I don't believe in God but if I had life with no parole, I might, and in that moment... I did.

At one point I was wondering how much more time I had to play. In between songs I asked Jim, into the microphone, "How much time do we have?" One of the guys answered instead, "Life." This was followed by a burst of laughter in the crowd. I too couldn't help but giggle... until I realized that it wasn't funny at all.

One of the most memorable characters in that group was a man called Dark Cloud. He was right up front from the start. He was big and covered in tattoos. He had a long, black braid and wore a bandana low on his brow. He sat with a stone face and arms crossed for most of the show until the other guys shouted his name enough times to coax him into reciting some poetry. I found out later what he was in for, and while I feel its not my place to tell all of you, I will say that, to many, he is a hero. There seem to be many tales about Dark Cloud, one is that one of his children was conceived while he has been inside. If this is true, its quite impressive considering they don't give conjugal visits at New Folsom.

I wish I could have spent more time talking with those guys. They had lots of questions for me about my loop pedals and my guitar. I had a million questions for them about their lives and experiences, but there wasn't time. We were off to the second show which took place in Ad-Seg (more commonly known as solitary confinement, "the shu" or "the hole"), on A yard (the mental health unit). I was warned about this performance by Jim. He checked with me many times to make sure I really wanted to do it. Nothing he could tell me could really prepare me for what I was about to see. In this part of the prison all the incarcerated people wore white jumpsuits. The ones we saw were cuffed, hands and feet (and some all attached to each other in a line), and led by guards. We were brought to a room lined with cages. Thats right, cages. There were 10 cages that were all about the size of a phone booth. I was required to wear a stab vest, which felt ridiculous and like a betrayal of how I felt about the people I was performing for, unafraid.

The audience members were led in one by one. They each kneeled on a chair outside the room while a guard removed their ankle shackles, and then they were led into their cages. They entered facing the wall and the door was locked. Then a small door was opened at wrist level and the guards removed their hand cuffs. That door was then also locked. The cages each had a metal stool and a small desk-table about the size of two sheets of printer paper, both bolted to the floor of the cage. Only half of the cages were filled because apparently one of the cell blocks was late on their round of medications.

I can't really explain how I felt. I'd never had such a captive audience before. I wasn't sure if they had chosen to be there or had a choice whether or not to stay. A few of them were reading newspapers and the rest were watching me set up. One guy asked me about my guitar but other than that, they were quiet. The guy that had originally asked me about my guitar rustled a paper through most of my set. The guy next to him was totally enthralled and had a smile on his face the whole time. The guy next to him went back and forth between paper-rustling and seeming to enjoy my songs. The next guy over from him was completely blank faced, perhaps due to medication. The next guy was the only one grooving to the music, he seemed the most with it. The last guy on the end, who was also the last to come in, sat up on the table in the cage instead of on the stool. He had very little expression throughout. Apparently he and Sass had a moment though, she told me later. He was young and looked sort of fragile.

When I was done, the recreational therapist who was working with them asked me what my impression of the prison was. The men were all still in their cages and we were still in the room with them. He explained that he was surprised when he first went there because it wasn't like the prisons in the movies. He said he thought it would be dark and there would be leaks from the ceiling. He was painfully chipper, but that might be his way of dealing with his environment. I didn't know what to say really, but said this "Well, it's not exactly bright and cheery." He then asked me if I'd ever played a prison before. I said, "Sure haven't, and I've never played to guys in cages before either." He informed me (somewhat sarcastically) that they don't refer to them as cages, but rather as "therapeutic modules." I turned to the guys and asked "Does it feel therapeutic?" Only one responded, and did so by saying, "Nah."

After this set we had a break. We sat in Jim's car, or rather the prison's car that Jim was driving us around in, and ate our lunch. I couldn't help but think of the food that the people incarcerated there got to eat. No fresh vegetables ever... while we had our fill of hummus, chips, fruit smoothie, ants-on-a-log (brought by Jim), strawberries, and baked tofu. We proceeded to the third and final venue for the day. The third show started at 1 PM and took place in another library. This library was in a less secure area within the mental health unit.

Not everyone housed on A yard is there for mental health services. If someone gives up information on a gang, they will be moved to this area for their own safety, for instance. Or if the crime they committed that led to their incarceration is one that would lead to violence against them in the general population, they'll be placed on A yard. For this reason, it has a bad reputation within the prison.

Books and movies I've read have made solitary confinement out to be a short term punishment, much like sending a child to sit in the corner to think about what they've done. But, for people who the prison deams problematic, it can be where they serve years, or decades, or a life sentence. Jim has successfully helped some guys who have spent years in solitary confinement be placed back into the general population. He is a true believer in art therapy. He has a story about a guy he worked with for years, whose face he never completely saw because it was always behind a small barred window. Apparently this man was in solitary for 12 years before Jim started bringing him paper and charcoal to draw with. Years later Jim ran into this man on the outside. He was performing in a show written by and cast of people who were previously incarcerated. Though he had known him for years, Jim didn't recognize him since he'd never seen his entire face, until he said his name.

The 1 PM show started a little late. We had to wait for the people from Cell Block 6 who were held up for some reason or another. There were about 25 in the audience this time. This one was the most fun for me. I felt more comfortable after the first two sets. Also I felt like nothing could shock me after playing to people in cages. I was cracking jokes and having fun. The guys were really receptive and a few of them played songs on my guitar when I insisted I needed a break. These guys were super shy about playing. The fact that this surprised me informed me of some prejudgements I had going in.

After this set I cleaned up my stuff and chatted with some of the people who'd been in the audience a bit. Again they had lots of questions about my gear and I didn't get to hear too much about them. I'll have to go back and spend more time. One of the guys did tell me he is a rapper, though. He said he has rapped with a bunch of famous hip-hop artists from the bay area. He told me to google him and that he goes by Big Lurch. He is 6'6" so the name makes sense in a way. He didn't fit the name is some ways though, he seemed really sweet and kind of shy and wore glasses. He wasn't at all creepy like the name might suggest.

When we left the prison we had to go back through the security check points, show them our invisible hand stamps, sign out on the visitor sheets, and hand in our visitor papers. The last gate we walked through had the most ominous creak. It was just like every prison gate in every movie. Whether you are going in or out, it's telling you something about what's ahead of you. I left without really knowing how to exist in the outside world again. Having entered the lives of these people, many of whom will never know anything else, it seemed impossible to interact with my life the same way I always had. I can't imagine how it must feel for someone who has been there for five, ten, thirty years to be released into "freedom" again. When other people have been making your choices for you for that long, will you remember how to do it for yourself? A prison sentence is not only as long as the time spent inside. In a theoretical way, I always knew that. I still don't know it the way many do.

Over decompession tea and pastries, Jim told us that he used to look at the case files for the men he worked with. He stopped doing it though, he doesn't want the information to effect his experience of them. One of the things he said has been echoing in my head for days, "Do you want to be remembered for the worst thing you've ever done?"

I still haven't processed all of this. It's too much to really know what to do with. I can't stop thinking about it. I dream about it. As horribly depressing as it was, all I want is to go back. I plan to spend more time on my next visit. Jim wants me to teach a music workshop. There are so many talented musicians in there though, I wouldn't know what to offer them. My reasons for going would be mostly selfish. It's so inspiring that in a situation so grim, the people there still make art... and incredible art. After that experience I'll certainly never claim to be a tortured artist. My personal struggles seem pretty insignificant at the moment.

I don't know how to close, so I'll close with this piece of the story:

Right before leaving I was talking to one of the guys, who went by Archie. He was incredibly sweet and wore a white scrunchie in his long hair. He asked me "Do you play a lot of shows out there?" and I responded, "Do you mean 'out there', like the world?" and he said, "Yeah, you know..." followed by a dramatic hand gesture and a look off into the 'distance', "...out there."


  1. Wow. Awesome blog. Very well-written -- glad you decided to share this experience with us "out here."

  2. "There are so many talented musicians in there though, I wouldn't know what to offer them"..

    You're offering them a release and escape that they can't get physically, sugar.

    This was beautifully written.. and I can't fathom the stories that each of the inmates hold. The horrors and their reasons, but I imagine some truly amazing ones too. I hope you do go back.Thank you for sharing this with the world.

  3. This story resonates with me. I've never been in a situation where I've felt more judged than when I visited a prison. I wouldn't have thought that your music would fly there, but more importantly, I'm glad that it did.

    You will go back there someday, and you will tell some interesting stories. It's almost certain.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this experience ... it put's life "out here" in a different perspective. Thank you !

  5. I am soooooo glad you wrote this blog. Every bit of it. When you said you played at Folsom prison, I was flooded with curiosity as to what it was like. You've painted a picture with your words, yet I'm sure it still doesn't fully explain your experience.

    I listen to a podcast where people tell personal stories. Some are sad, some are humorous. Stories told from former inmates always intrigue me. Every person has a different attitude about what they've done or how life was like when they were in prison.

    It's interesting because we always tend to hear the other side of the story. When reading or seeing something on the news, you never get to know the person who committed the crime. We always hear from everyone else.

    I can not even imagine what it's like being in one building for the rest of your life. The lack of freedom and ability to explore new horizons would absolutely kill me.

    I could really go on and on about this. I actually cut a lot of my excess babble. Thank you for posting this extraordinary experience. It's very capturing.

  6. Oh, Zoe, that must have been horribly frightening and exciting at the same time! I don't know if I would have the courage, but then if you don't know WHY someone is there, I guess it would be easier to talk to them. The cages part sounds rough if you're used to playing for people who WANT to hear you - nerves of steel, girl!

  7. This is fantastic. How did such an opportunity come about?

  8. Zoe—
    This is beautiful piece of writing. Yours is an amazing, generous spirit. You are truly engaged in this world. It is so easy for most of us to forget about the lost, the unloved. There, but for the grace of God, go we.
    Thank you!