PERFORMING IN PRISON: Both sides of the bars

Music programs for inmates help develop self-esteem and replace destructive behaviors

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008

When Buddy Tabor got the call to perform at Folsom Prison, he didn't get all puffed up about it. It wasn't Carnegie Hall or "Prairie Home Companion" calling. It was a doctor who worked with murderers, thieves and other violent offenders, who wanted to bring music into the prison.

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David Sheakley / Juneau Empire
David Sheakley / Juneau Empire

"I think, in a way, it's gotta be kind of a spiritual calling. In my case they came and got a hold of me. I never got a hold of them," Tabor said of the first time he performed at Folsom. "If you're going in there and you think you're hot stuff, or you're Johnny Cash, or 'I wanna make a name for myself,' it's a tragic mistake.

"I think it should come from a biblical reference, you know, 'when I was in prison, you visited me.' I think you go in with an open mind ... I mean, it's an act of compassion."

Tabor, a Juneau singer-songwriter, has performed at Folsom four times. His shows usually lasted about an hour before he would turn it around and ask the inmates to perform for him.

"They showed us their paintings. They showed us their poetry. They sang their songs they'd written. There's some very talented people in prison," he said.

"Some of those guys thought I was famous. So the second time I went in I told them, 'You know, I want to let you guys know something, because I want to be straight with you.' I said, 'I'm not famous. I'm not successful at what I do,'" Tabor said. "And this one guy looks at me and goes, 'Yeah, but you are here.'"

Michael Truax has 30 years experience organizing music programs for inmates. He's been a correctional officer, probation officer and supervising probation officer at Lemon Creek Correctional Center. Currently, he's the correctional programs director at Gastineau Human Services, a community residential center working with people transitioning back into the community.

Truax also is an accomplished guitar player and supports programs that bring music into the prison.

"The biggest thing about prison is it's very, very boring. There's very little joy in prison," he said. "Being a big fan of music myself, I find great joy and comfort in music. And I know that many of them do, too."

Truax said he's in the business of preventing victims through rehabilitative programs.

"Programs make it more manageable," he said. "If they have nothing to lose, you're gonna be fighting every day. So the idea behind programs is it's a good management tool."

Truax has organized potlatches, concerts and entertainment for inmates. Last February, he helped organize "Starting the Good Life," an all-day program aimed to help soon-to-be-released inmates develop skills for life on the outside. He invited local musicians Collette Costa and Albert McDonnell to perform at the event "as an icebreaker."

"I thought of Collette as one person who's got that charisma and ability to put a smile on anybody's face no matter what they're feeling," he said.

Costa said she had a great time and would happily do it again.

"I walked in, and there were all these inmates and they had their yellow jumpsuits on. And the first thing I said was, 'Oh, my God, I'm so glad I didn't wear my yellow jumpsuit. That would have been so embarrassing!' It took a second, but then they just started cracking up and they were like, 'Oh, that's funny,'" Costa said.

Asked why she thought performing in prison was important, Costa said, "It's good for them to have a real connection outside of those walls. ... I just think it's important to keep that open, otherwise we just have a bunch of disenfranchised people who don't feel accountable for their actions."

Sean Tracey performed at Lemon Creek with his band, Panhandle Crabgrass Revival Band. Tracey said that going through the checkpoints and getting psyched for the gig was a little unnerving, but the band enjoyed the audience's enthusiastic reaction. He said, in the end, it was one of the most fun shows the band ever did.

"I remember the gate clang behind me and it was a fairly ominous sound. And it was definitely physically a pretty sterile environment - just a big gymnasium with bleacher seats pulled out and florescent lighting. We were just standing out in the middle of the floor with the single microphone playing songs," Tracey said.

"Us being a bar band, we were used to people mingling and dancing and stuff like that. But they were obligated to not leave their seat, so at first it seemed like it was going to be pretty sterile. But you could just feel the enthusiasm and how happy they were to have some live music there," he said.

James "Bobby Jack" Kennedy has served in a number of prisons and has experienced a variety of rules around playing music. Some prisons have music programs and places to jam and allow guitars in the rooms, while others have limited or no programs for music.

"When I was at Wildwood, in Kenai, we had guitars in our rooms. I taught a guitar class. Spring Creek in Seward and the prison in Arizona have actual band rooms, and people can have multitrack recorders and guitars and things like that, so it's very nice," he said.

At Lemon Creek, the prison chaplain keeps the guitars and provides for limited practice times, but inmates are not allowed to take the guitars back to their rooms.

Kennedy has observed that in many prisons, access to instruments is available only through the church.

"You may have to get involved in the church," he said. "But the main way for music in prison to happen is through outside action. ... You can donate guitars to help the chapel or learning center. There are a lot of ways to get in there and help prisoners get to play."

Kennedy supports music in prison because of its positive benefits for people in recovery from substance abuse.

"This is your escape from addiction. Statistically the people who have a hobby or an interest or a special skill or a talent have a lot easier time with recovery than those whose only talents are what they know using or fighting or drinking or whatever is bringing them to prison," Kennedy said.

Janet Forbes, administrator of correctional programs at Gastineau Human Services, agrees.

"When you're playing music ... you're stimulating parts of the brain that for some people haven't been stimulated before or have been damaged in some way - either by the use of substances or traumatic brain injury, fetal alcohol (disorder), etc.," Forbes said. "So what music and art do is create that stimulation in the brain, on both sides of the brain, and helps healing occur."

Forbes said most offenders passing through Gastineau Human Services have behavioral health problems resulting from substance abuse and/or mental health issues. The art and music programs are part of a planned therapeutic process that helps retrain the brain and replace destructive behaviors with constructive ones. Engaging in art and music are some of the ways people can replace bad behaviors, she said.

"What you're doing is you're training your brain to find pleasure in another area, or in another type of healthy activity, rather than finding that pleasure snorting cocaine or using drugs, that kind of thing. It can bring about some of the same emotional responses and actual physical responses (as drugs)," she said.

Gastineau Human Services has recently put the finishing touches on a music room within the facility. Funding from a grant allowed the purchase of guitars, drums, keyboards, microphones and sound equipment. Residents have access to the instruments as well as instruction in how to play them.

Allen Hulett, a case manager and guitar instructor at Gastineau, said they're at the stage of seeking people interested in learning to play. "I'll teach you how to play the instrument. You get to pick the style," he said.

One of the goals at Gastineau is to develop positive skills and build self-esteem through the self-discipline, self-expression and ensemble work involved in music.

"You have to listen to what the other players are doing. You have to key in, be on the same page and there's also a lot of focus involved," said Rob Muller, a resident at Gastineau. "It's good for expression and learning to work together."

Katherine Howard, also a resident at Gastineau Human Services, said music helps her relax. She's into hip-hop and writes her own lyrics reflecting what she feels.

"Mostly it's about experiences and things, like going to court. That's a really hard thing to live with 'cause its gonna follow you for the rest of your life, you know. I gotta live with it so I might as well put music behind it and make the best of it."

James Flake has served 22 years in the prison system. He carves and plays music as a way to feel better, pass the time and keep himself calm.

"It relaxes the soul and gives you a chance to step away from here. I mean if you start playing, you get lost in your music and the hassle you had with the resident advisor at the desk is no longer there. ... You can get so involved in your music that you forget where you're at," he said.

Asked why it is important for inmates to be happy, Flake said, "You want the true story? You want me happy. You don't want me unhappy. Because bad things happen when I am unhappy. You give somebody something constructive and it makes them feel better about themselves and about what's going on in their life. You take that away and you make them feel bad and they do bad things. They lose hope and the next thing you know, they're robbing the liquor store, or they're running away from here to get high.

"It's better, trust me, it is better for people to be happy and content and at least have something to look forward to."

When Tabor performed at Folsom, he admitted to being a little nervous at first, but realized he was among fellow humans who shared his passion for music and writing.

"You know there's a fork in the road, and sometimes you take the wrong turn. ... I try not to be judgmental when I go in. It's just fun to share your songs and to hear theirs. That's part of the reason you do it. It's a rewarding experience."

"Anybody could end up in there," Tracey concluded. "It makes you feel kinda nice to think that you can help somebody out a little bit."

• Teri Tibbett is a writer and musician living in Juneau. She has taught guitar and music to incarcerated youth at Johnson Youth Center and has performed and organized concerts at Lemon Creek Correctional Facility. She can be reached at

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