Concert promotes cooperation, healing through music

Story by Terri Hardy, PIO II
Photos by Ike Dodson, PIO
CDCR’s Office of Public and Employee Communications

Two hospice inmates who make up the band “Grateful” captivated the audience as they sang about “paying their dues.” Members of a psychiatric program pushed anxiety aside and jammed with music therapists and correctional staff. A third inmate band of varying ethnicities and backgrounds learned to cooperate for the common love of music.

It all happened at Prison Palooza – an exuberant, first-of-its kind music festival at California Medical Facility (CMF) in Vacaville on March 24. The three inmate groups were also joined by Sacramento blues man and music instructor Lew Fratis and his band.

The idea for the event came from CMF’s Chief Deputy Warden Daniel E. Cueva who admitted that at first it was driven by “pure selfishness” from his love of music and concerts. He thought, “Why not here?”

Lr 4070Standing outside the gym in a Prison Palooza t-shirt, Cueva said the concert exceeded his expectations.

“You saw officers performing with inmates – a real change in culture, with us and with them,” Cueva said. “I really wanted people to see that there is a lot of good that happens here.”

Again and again, whether it was in a set of blues songs, a wailing Jimi Hendrix rendition or an edgy version of the Romantics “What I like about You,” music was the element that transformed bands and audience.

It’s been music, said Grateful band member Keven Floyd, that has helped him during his battle with cancer in the CMF hospice. It’s what brought him together with John Jackson, his roommate and band member.

“It’s music every day,” Floyd said. “If it’s a bad day for one of us, we’ll play to ease their pain. Sometimes, listening to those songs, it’s enough to help you pick up the guitar again and keep going.”

The pair composed two songs for the concert, including “Hospice Blues.”

Members of the CMF House Band are part of the prison’s Arts in Corrections music program, taught by Fratis. Lessons learned go far beyond music to include discipline and cooperation.

“Music is a safe area for your mind,” Fratis said. “It’s intense and it’s sublime. It’s so powerful that it builds relationships and self-esteem. “

For offender Landon Jackson, Fratis’ twice-a-week classes are the highlight of his week. He grew up in a musical household and sang in the choir in high school, but he never had “homework” in the subject before. “I’m learning the guitar, how to sing harmony and music theory,” Jackson said.  He knows there’s even more that he’s taking away.

“There are lots of talented people and we’re learning how to put music first. It’s not about our egos,” Jackson said. “Learning how to work with people, how to deal with people who have mental difficulties or attitude, how to be a leader – these are skills I can use on the outside.”

Fratis’ music class is offered through The William James Association as part of the larger Arts in Corrections rehabilitation effort. Arts in Corrections courses prepare incarcerated individuals for success upon release, enhance rehabilitative goals, and improve the safety and environment of state prisons through arts engagement. Various courses are offered in all 35 adult institutions, spanning the full spectrum of art disciplines, with instruction in music, visual, literary, performance, media and traditional and folk arts. It is administered by the California Arts Council in partnership with CDCR.

Music also plays a key role in CMF’s Psychiatric Inpatient Program. This program is one of the few to have trained music therapists overseeing the group. They work with the patients to teach coping skills for suicidal thoughts, chronic depression, anger and anxiety.

Patients from that program in the ensemble group formed the band A-3 Project. Some have never had a music background and they learn to play instruments. Each band member chose a song they wanted to perform.  At Prison Palooza music therapist Brandon Madsen sang and played keyboard, while music therapist Tim McGinty powered away on the drums. Officer Dave Kroeger at times took up the guitar and rocked with the group.

“From the audience standpoint, this may look very much like entertainment, but this is very much a therapeutic process,” McGinty said.