By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer
Office of Public and Employee Communications
One would be hard-pressed to find a more appropriate song for more than a dozen inmates and volunteers to perform together to close out a day of music and fellowship inside a state prison.
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.”
The classic Rolling Stones tune was the final song of a Jail Guitar Doors (JGD) presentation at Valley State Prison, where professional musicians donated their time and talent to the inmate population. The day wasn’t just about music and having a good time – more, it was about how the arts connect people across all sorts of divides, bridging gaps of culture, economics and even incarceration.
Heading the pack of volunteer musicians was Cody Marks, a lifelong musician who has performed not only in prisons and jails around the world, but was also voluntarily deployed by the Pentagon to play for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Prisons and war – that’s what I do,” Marks laughed as she prepared for her first set.
In addition to the concert and the camaraderie, JGD came bearing 12 brand-new Fender guitars. The instruments, donated by actor Will Ferrell, will be used by the inmates for use in their Arts-in-Corrections programs, and Marks plans to return regularly to lead guitar workshops for the men at VSP.
“It’s really just about music,” Marks commented. “It’s about making the guys feel somewhat normal for an hour or two. These guys are doing the best they can in the worst time of their lives.”
Indeed, the men involved in arts programs at VSP must demonstrate good behavior and a willingness to communicate peacefully. The programs operate on a rotating cycle that includes creative writing, theater, fine arts and music. In addition to several bands that have been formed by VSP inmates, men also take part in music classes sponsored by the Alliance for California Traditional Arts and the William James Association. Most recently, Abdullatif Bell Tounkara has taught djembe drumming classes that have proven to be popular among inmates.
Warden Ray Fisher Jr. expressed his appreciation for the volunteers who come in to share their expertise, and for providing a positive event for the inmates.
“As the warden of Valley State Prison, I am very grateful that Cody Marks and Jail Guitar Doors were able to come to the prison and perform for the inmate population,” he said. “I truly believe that the inmate population enjoyed the performance. These types of activities are vital to the successful rehabilitation of the men housed at VSP, as they distract from the daily stressors associated with prison life.”
Daniel Henson said if he could sum up what arts programs mean to inmates in one word, it would be “hope.” Of particular importance is the fact that artists come into prisons to share their work with the population inside.
“It means recovery is possible, change is possible,” Henson said. “It means that people in society haven’t forgotten about the men who are still in prison who are changing, who are tired of the drugs, alcohol, gangs and crime. They want a new start, and so Jail Guitar Doors and Cody Marks coming in here – it’s significant.”
JGD’s vision is to empower offenders with the necessary tools and resources they need to change, to enable them to choose to change and not reoffend. Encouraging inmates to create art, along with educational and vocational programs, results in safer prisons and positive change from the inside out.
Frank Wells, a founder of the inmate self-help group Celebrating Art and Recovery Therapy, has seen firsthand the results of arts programs in prisons. His group incorporates music, theater, business and creative writing into a program focused on using art for healing and service – from donating artwork to community service organizations to using acting techniques to discover new ways to communicate.
“Everything is wrapped around self-expression in a healthy manner,” Wells said. “That’s the real message that we want to bring when it comes to these types of programs – the healing properties.”
Henry Ortiz agrees. He is the founder of the inmate band Fuego Latino, one of several bands that followed Marks’ performance. He said that through art and music, people in prison are learning how to channel their strong emotions into something that heals rather than harms.
“Pain is energy, and if you use it, that pain can help you articulate something phenomenal, whether it’s a poem, whether it’s a song,” Ortiz said. “And that’s how I have been able to find a lot of healing – I embrace pain.”