Common kicks off the Hope and Redemption Tour at Calipatria State Prison.

Famed musician spreads message of hope at four California prisons

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, CDCR Public Information Officer II
Office of Public and Employee Communications
Courtesy photos

Change is rippling throughout the California prison system, and an Academy Award-winning musician is helping provide the soundtrack.

One of the most significant parts of the tour was visiting with youthful offenders, such as at Ironwood State Prison, where Common and his band spoke one on one with men who were committed to state prison as juveniles.

Teaming up with his friend and movie producer Scott Budnick, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) and the California Endowment, Common spent the better part of a week this spring sharing his music with inmates and staff at four CDCR prisons. But the visits were about so much more than music – Common also spent hours speaking with men and women inside, hearing about their stories and paths to redemption, and sharing ideas and inspiration with both staff and inmates about how to continue and expand the important rehabilitative work being done inside and outside prison walls.

Mr. Budnick, who has been a fan of Common for years, has long been involved with rehabilitation. ARC (founded by Budnick in 2013) provides reentry services for current and formerly incarcerated people, beginning with preparing inmates for reentry and continuing on the outside with support and mentoring, housing and employment assistance, and empowering those impacted by the criminal justice system – both offenders and victims – to have a voice in raising awareness about restorative justice.

A fan of Common for years, and aware of his commitment to criminal justice reform, Budnick invited the musician to join him in juvenile hall trips and in visiting state prisons. Common’s work as an actor and musician leaves him little free time for volunteer work, but Budnick is not one to back down when it comes to rehabilitation and is passionate about sharing the work with others. He also knew that Common’s work on the film “Selma,” for which he and John Legend received an Academy Award for their song “Glory,” had a profound impact on the musician. And so he kept extending the invitation.

Scott Budnick, founder of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, speaks to the crowd at Ironwood State Prison.

“After he won the Academy Award for ‘Selma,’ and being an actor in the film, having seen the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, and seeing how they dedicated their whole lives to this cause, he just knew he needed to double down,” Budnick said. “He knew he needed to not just rap about positive stuff in the community, he wanted to also be hands-on and get his hands dirty and do the work.”

And so the “Hope and Redemption Tour” was born. The events were planned around Common’s short time off from writing and performing, which meant a tight schedule and meticulous timing. Starting at Calipatria State Prison (CAL) and continuing to Ironwood State Prison (ISP), California Institution for Women (CIW), and California State Prison-Los Angeles County (LAC), Budnick, Common and CDCR worked together to plan not just the musical performances, but also tours of the prisons, visits to rehabilitative programs and opportunities to speak with inmates and prison staff about their work. At each site, a film crew documented the visits, and representatives of CDCR headquarters, the criminal justice system, and California Gov. Jerry Brown’s office joined the conversations, as well.

“The Hope and Redemption Tour was one of the greatest and most awakening experiences of my life,” Common said. “It inspired me, as I met some of the most humane and enlightened people. For them to be in such difficult circumstances, yet be aspiring toward hope and their own and others’ humanity, was amazing.”

“There were a few goals,” Budnick explained. “One was to be able to film inspiring stories of inmates who have changed their lives because of programs happening within the prisons. We want to inspire people to look up these programs, fundraise for these programs, expand these programs, and create new programs. I think we really did that.”

Residente, left, a 24-time Latin Grammy winner, performs alongside Common at Calipatria State Prison.

At CAL, Common was joined by Latin Grammy winner Residente for a tour of self-help programs and a performance for the general population inmates and staff. In between songs, the musicians shared their stories and messages of hope with the audience.

“With the help of Team Common and CAL staff, an amazing event was held and enjoyed by many,” said CAL Public Information Officer Everardo Silva. “Common’s message was not only about hope and redemption, but also peace, and being productive citizens as people reenter our communities. He spoke about unity across racial lines and about building one another up, regardless of race. It was about being positive, even when incarcerated, and making the right choices to better themselves as individuals in our communities.”

In between songs, Common shared words of inspiration and hope with Calipatria State Prison inmates and staff.

The team visited The Last Mile computer coding program at ISP, an expansion of a program at San Quentin State Prison in which inmates learn the complicated and high-tech world of computer coding. Several graduates of the program have gone on to start successful careers in the industry. The team spoke with a graduate of that program as he prepared to parole after 30 years in prison who shared his reflections on the changes in the system and the benefits of providing positive programming to inmates. They also met with the Youthful Offender Program (YOP) which allows for eligible youth from the Division of Juvenile Justice to transition to lower security-level prisons as opposed to high-security yards, providing more access to programs and a safer environment while also linking youthful offenders to mentors who were also sentenced to long prison sentences as juveniles. The older inmates provide wisdom and inspiration to their young counterparts, teaching them how important it is to stay discipline-free, participate in rehabilitative programs, and maintain a positive mindset in the challenging prison environment.

“One of the coolest things on that visit was completely unscheduled,” Budnick said. “We walked over to a YOP building after the show and they were all hyped up, most of them just having seen their first concert. The whole band went to all the cells in there, talking to the men inside and telling them they’ll be praying for them, to continue working on their change, they need to make God and their parents proud – and focus on their families and on coming home.”

Budnick pointed out an important aspect of the musical portion of Common’s visit – for many inside, the concert showed that it’s absolutely possible to have a good time without the influence of drugs and alcohol.

Skip Townsend, front row in black shirt, watches Common perform along with staff and inmates at California Institution for Women.

Common and the rest of the crew visited Bobby Duke Middle School in the Coachella Valley on their way to CIW, learning how the administration at that school has been using restorative justice as an alternative to punishment in addressing conflict and behavioral issues. Since teaching students and teachers about building strong relationships and creating their own solutions to problems inside and outside the classroom, the school has cut expulsions and suspensions in half.

After speaking with the teachers and students, the team headed to CIW, where they visited Skip Townsend’s reentry program for female inmates. The theme of the day was forgiveness, and Common met with women whose journeys have included not only seeking forgiveness for the hurt they have caused others, but also learning to forgive themselves and those who have hurt them. One woman, who goes by the nickname Red, shared her struggle in forgiving her family. Her story so moved Common that when he performed later for 1,200 women, he called her onstage for a song.

“After the show, inmates got an opportunity to speak with Common as they were leaving,” shared CIW Warden (A) Molly Hill. “Everyone thanked Common for his support, coming to CIW, and his words of hope, and some were in tears as they said for just one day, they felt as if they were on top of the world.”

After attending rehabilitative programs at California Institution for Women, Common performed for hundreds of women there.

At LAC, the team ran into challenges out of their control as gusting winds blew through the city of Lancaster. After waiting in vain for several hours for the winds to die down, the team made the hard decision that it was impossible to do an outside show. Not to be deterred, Budnick and the LAC team quickly organized an impromptu forum for inmates, staff and guests, including CDCR Undersecretary Ralph Diaz, Division of Adult Institutions Deputy Director Connie Gipson, Nettie Sabelhaus, special adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown on appointments, and Nancy McFadden, Gov. Brown’s executive secretary.

At LAC, the floor was open for staff and inmates to share their thoughts on restorative justice.

The group was brought into a housing unit, where a two-hour roundtable discussion was held about rehabilitation, with the floor open for both inmates and guests to share their thoughts on what’s working, what needs to change, and how people on both sides of prison walls can influence change.

“When we finished, Common looked at me and said, ‘That was better than any concert,’” Budnick shared.

Riding the positive vibes of the Hope and Redemption Tour, Common and Budnick continued on to visit with a community reentry program and spoke with inmate family members about their challenges and the importance of maintaining family bonds and a strong support system. Then they headed to Santa Ana, where Common performed at nonprofit Revolve Impact’s “Schools not Prisons” event.

The nonstop work and hectic pace of the week would be overwhelming for most, but for Budnick it’s business as usual. He’s a familiar face at prisons throughout California, where he regularly organizes events and programs to inspire incarcerated men and women to change for the better and prepare for successful returns home.

CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan discusses the many benefits of positive programming at the Rehabilitation and Reentry Convening at California State Prison-Los Angeles County.

In 2016, he facilitated the “Rehabilitation and Reentry Convening,” a two-day event that brought together inmates, CDCR custody and executive staff, crime victims, criminal justice advocates, lawmakers and several county district attorneys for a day of idea-sharing inside LAC and an overnight retreat to continue the conversation. Among the attendees was CDCR Secretary Scott Kernan, who praised Budnick and everyone involved for their work in spreading the word about rehabilitation, even when the conversation is hard to have.

“I can tell you that from this vantage, the commitment from this organization is to do something different, and to turn out better people, and better law-abiding citizens, when they go home,” he said. “That is what’s going to help reduce recidivism and enhance public safety.”

LAC inmate Ivan Stine, looking around at the room of public officials and inmates speaking with one another on the same level, was floored at the change he saw taking place before his eyes. Incarcerated since age 16, Stine said participating in positive rehabilitative programming has changed his outlook and goals for the future.

“My chief goal is not just to go home anymore, but to be a genuine, positive human being,” he shared.

Events like the LAC convening and Hope and Redemption Tour serve not only as opportunities for inmates to share their stories with outside guests, but, more importantly, for those guests to take that conversation outside the walls, to the communities and people that can help impact change and support rehabilitation. Common will most certainly do just that.

“It showed what we as people, organizations such as ARC, and our correctional facilities can do to truly give people who are incarcerated hope, rehabilitation, and a second chance to feel human again,” he said.

Pastor Ruett Foster speaks to inmates and outside guests at LAC about his journey to forgiveness through restorative justice after the murder of his 7-year-old son.