Musician talks power of hope, music with inmates in Vacaville

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Photos by Eric Owens,  CDCR Staff Photographer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

As the first notes of a soul music classic began to play, hundreds of voices joined in, filling a cavernous gym with lyrics that, to those singing, had deep meaning.

“You’re still a young man, baby, don’t waste your time.”

Rick Stevens, the original lead singer of Tower of Power, swayed with the music as he crooned, his eyes lighting up at the sight of hundreds of people singing his best-known song. This could have been any concert at any venue – to Stevens, it didn’t matter at all that his audience was made up of 500 inmates from the California Medical Facility (CMF).

“It was a fulfillment of a prophecy, of a prayer,” said Stevens after performing alongside Stockton’s Bump City Reunion Band. “And, it’s basically what I told the board that I would do when I hit the streets, if they would parole me.”

Parole him they did. When Stevens went home in 2012, he immediately began combining his musical talents with a spirit of community service instilled in him during his 36 years of incarceration. When asked to return to CMF, where he served seven years in the 1970s and ’80s, he jumped at the chance to hopefully inspire the inmate population there with his story of redemption.

“He was given a second chance, and now he’s out there and he’s bringing his message back,” said CMF Warden Robert Fox. “What that does for me and the 2,600 inmates here is it lets them know there are going to be dark days – but don’t give up hope. It’s out there. This is proof.”

When speaking to inmates, Stevens is open about his past. He was sentenced to death for murder in 1976, but the sentence was changed to life with the possibility of parole the following year, when California’s death penalty was declared unconstitutional (the death penalty was reinstated in California in 1978).

“After the death penalty was overturned, the judge in my case said, ‘I’m sentencing you to prison, but I’m sentencing you also to new life,’” Stevens said. The judge asked him to talk with inmates about the dangers of narcotics and criminal thinking, and Stevens said doing so “became part of my destiny.”

Willis Dunham was one of the first people Stevens inspired on the inside. When he transferred to CMF from a juvenile facility in the 1980s, Dunham found out Stevens was leading a music program. He asked if he could join, and Stevens told him no, not until he straightened out, got an education and set out on the right path. Dunham even had to show his report cards to Stevens, who in turn taught him about music and the value in working together as a team with a positive goal.

It worked. Dunham pursued an education, became involved in the music program and went on to become active in multiple rehabilitative programs. In February, he was found suitable for parole after 32 years in prison. A few days before going home, he got to once again see Stevens perform, and thanked him in person for changing his life.

“I dedicate my life and me changing from being in gangs – I dedicate that all to Rick Stevens,” Dunham said, barely able to contain his emotion.

Dunham opened for Stevens along with the CMF House Band, comprising members of the inmate music program overseen by the prison’s education department. Before the main event, inmate musicians representing several genres performed, from soul and rock tunes to upbeat Latin rhythms.

Stevens traveled to Vacaville with the Bump City Reunion Band, a soul R&B band that performs all over the state. The band is made up of more than dozen professional musicians, all of whom volunteered their time to perform for the inmate population. Although they could easily have charged thousands to perform at a major venue instead, each member was happy to share his or her talents for the afternoon.

“This is something special, because we’re giving back, and we’re all on the same page about that,” said band leader Billy Sims. “If this inspires these men to do something, this is truly giving back. Not everybody can say they’ve done something like this that brings value to everybody, but it also brings value to us because we’ve got to take the time to realize how grateful we are for our lives, too.”

Speaking between songs, Stevens shared with the audience how he was involved in programs throughout his incarceration, from Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous to juvenile diversion programs to inspire youth to stay out of prison. He was also involved in organizing self-help groups that worked to change the culture of prison to one of rehabilitation and positivity. He urged the audience to surround themselves with good influences, and to keep working toward better futures both in and out of prison.

That message, Fox said, was why he fully supported the musician’s return to his institution.

“There are going to be days where it’s going to be tough,” he said. “Remember Rick on those days. Don’t give up hope. It’s out there – this is proof. This is a living, breathing person standing here in front of you. You’re looking at him; he’s singing to you.

“Any one of the inmates in the audience could be that,” Fox added. “They might be the next person getting out there and making positive change.”