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Folsom Prison

For the last two days I have been in Folsom Prison, giving a "House Concert" and sharing songs and stories with some of the inmates. I had no real expectations going in. After travelling for the last 18 months around the world knocking on people's houses that I had never met before to give concerts, you let all your expectations go after a while. Things rarely turn out how we think they will and for me on this trip so far, it's almost always been better that I could ever have imagined. I had, however, been told certain things to help me with the experience by Jim, the man responsible for much of the programme that brings musicians and artists into Folsom in the first place. So, as we passed through security and into one of three yards, and passed a few men in "solitary", outside in their cages it wasn't so much of a shock.

As crazy as it sounds, the thing I was most nervous about was offending anyone. Not because of any repercussions but I wondered whether if there was any point in being there. I cannot imagine what is in the mind of these men. The whole point of being an artist is to connect (and I guess that's the point of being human) and as I entered here, I felt out of my depth.

Yesterday morning we started with a group from Yard A, most of whom were in the mental health programme. Jim broke the ice by chatting away to them as they arrived into an art room that they had only been given fairly recently. Some of them were writers so to break up the gig they read some of their work as well. One prisoner started his poem: "I was in prison before I was in prison." I wasn't allowed to record or film anything while I was inside this time but those words really stuck with me.

Next, Jim took me over to a small group of inmates that were learning the guitar. They had an hour before the tutor was due to arrive and Jim wanted to make the most out of my visit. Even though they had been playing for a few weeks they were eager to share what they could do and eager to listen to someone who had been doing it for a while. One of the prisoners there was a Native American flute player. He wasn't when he entered the prison but for whatever reason, once inside he had begun to write to traditional flute makers around the country asking for instruments to be sent to the prison. The flutes came. He played. We listened. He said "everyone always told me I was nothing. Then I came in here and discovered I'm an artist."

Folsom Prison Sign

The next morning, like the day before, I entered 'Folsom Prison' into the GPS. After a few miles I took a left on Prison Road, passed some deer that hang out around there (along with the wild turkeys and geese) and pulled into the visitors car park. Jim was waiting for me at the gate where I picked up my security pass for the second time and we headed to Yard C for this morning's class. Once a week some of the inmates from Yard C get together for "song share". They don't just share songs though; the room was full of about 16 artists, poets rappers and songwriters. One of the things Jim conveyed to me was that the visiting artists get just as much out of their time in Folsom than the inmates do. And going in with that attitude puts everyone on the same playing field. We all spent 2 1/2 hours listening to each other that morning. Kenneth was a blues songwriter who had had his works recorded by other artists after they had visited the prison and heard his tunes, Marty had written a substantial work about the life of Christ, and that morning Big C, who used to run the prison Gospel choir until he got ill, sang another one of Marty's songs called "Chains". There was written rap and freestyle rap, the like of which I hadn't heard before, and poems. Everyone pitched in and they were passionate about it. They were honing their crafts and it was inspiring to me as a fellow writer. The last session that afternoon was the "house concert" and although my voice was shot by this time, about 35 inmates squeezed into the art room back in yard A for one last time.

On day 2, I had some down time to talk with a few of the prisoners from the song share class and if they weren't wearing the blue trousers with "prisoner" written in yellow down one leg, I would have not have known that they were. These men were smart, funny and intelligent, and even had an air of humility about them.

I don't want to sound naïve here, life for inmates and those they have affected on the outside is very messy and complicated. But it does make you think.

I'm hoping to return next year.

11 October 2011

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