Last week, I spent a day in prison in Norco California at the California Rehabilitation
Center. I arrived some time after eight in the morning and waited at the gate while
the officer in charge tried to locate Violetta Peters, the arts facilitator, who was
expecting me. It took some time since I had given him the name Dobbs to give to
her not realizing that he had all my paperwork in front of him under Richard
Hartshorne. He said to park a half mile up the road. “What about my stuff?” “You’
re not bringing any stuff in here.” It all got cleared up when Violetta arrived and I
parked on some zebra stripes right in front of the gate. Once inside we got into an
enormous rattley old pickup truck and I sat with the bass in my lap and the neck
out the passenger side window. We wound through the prison and up the hill to
where the women’s division was. Violetta is a youngish, attractive, light skinned
African American with short hair and a bright pleasant manner. She’s new at the
job and seems to love it. I was her first outside artist. “You’re in luck”, she said.
“There’s a holiday potluck for the staff in the room you’ll be playing in. So we’ll
get a good lunch, including grilled turkey.” It all became clear to me. I’d seen a
man cooking a turkey on a grill outside the gate where I’d been waiting. I couldn’t
make that sight fit anywhere in my head so I’d just dismissed it. Of course.....
now I get it......the staff potluck and no fires allowed inside the gates.
The room was quite large and there were over a hundred chairs. The largest inmate audience I’d played for except in New Hampshire
prisons. The days of thousands of inmates gathering together to hear Johnny Cash are gone, everywhere. The women filed in and
looked at me expectantly. We waited while a number of them used the private restroom, probably a welcome privilege, but it was a
bit like school age kids, one getting permission and then dashing out after another.
Before I played I told them of my love for Bach and the Suites and how if they were
open to it, it would affect them emotionally. I asked them to listen to the silences
between the movements to try and see how they all fit together into one piece. They
were breathtakingly still. Afterwards many of them were on their feet cheering. I asked
them if they had felt anything and there was an audible groan of affirmation. After a
bunch of questions I told the story of my lost turtle. I measure audiences by how soon
they figure out that it is supposed to be funny. These women were laughing as I started
the turtle music, and when I came to the line, “He was gone” there were sympathetic
moans and “Oh no’s”. By the time I was singing, “Since I don’t have him, my turtle”,
they were howling. After more questions, I asked them if they wanted to hear a love
story, “Yeah”, or are you sick of love stories?” Even more “Yeah’s”, but they were
grinning. I ended with Mayonnaise and everyone was singing along. They asked lots of
questions about every conceivable thing, and near the end, one woman said.” I’ve never
listened to classical music before but you opened my eyes.” Afterwards I shook hands
with most of them and promised to come back.
A crew of three or four women stayed on to set up for the potluck. I was wandering around the room looking at pictures of the original building,
built in 1931 as a grand hotel, when one of the women gave me the “Come over here” hand gesture. We talked for a while and then I helped them set
up the tables for the meal. Meanwhile, Violetta was setting off on a quest and asked if I wanted to accompany her. “Sure.” The quest was for the
keys to the chaplains office to get a sound system for the staff party. We went outside and down a long flight of steps past rows of staff buildings
to a particular office where we found that no one there had the keys. That the locksmith was
not answering his phone, and that the chaplain had given his extra set to a volunteer who was
somewhere. We walked back up the stairs and around to the women’s gate. The officer there
thought he had the keys so he locked the gate and walked with us to the office, rounding up a
few volunteers to help carry the system on the way. He tried twenty or so keys but couldn’t
open it. So Violetta suggested we walk down the hill to the men’s gate where the chaplain was
in his other office. There are something like 8 000 men and 650 women so it’s a huge facility.
Except for the original hotel building, which is not currently being used, it is all small units
housing 100 to 200 inmates. They are constructing new dorms right in the middle of the prison,
causing a bottleneck for traffic. I asked Violetta if the inmates worked on the project. “Oh yes,
it’s all inmate labor with supervision of course.” It’s coveted work, not only for the experience
they get, but also the highest pay. A dollar an hour.” Other jobs pay 19 cents.
At last success. Daddy opens the door and we wheel the sound system into the room where the turkey
is now being carved. I get some food, with a little trepidation, as Daddy had told us that he wasn’t
eating the lunch. “Brought my own.” Violetta explained that at the last staff potluck, a month ago,
several people had gotten sick from a paella that had sat too long in the sun and several more had been
hospitalized. I avoided the mayonnaise and luckily there was no fish. The turkey was very good and I
had seen it cooking so I knew it was safe.
We get in the old pickup again and head down to the men’s section. On the way, we see a staff member
in drug rehab who had volunteered to drive an older inmate to LA a few weeks ago, when he was
released. But unfortunately, a young nephew had shown up and taken the man away. The nephew had
a bad feel to him and everyone was worried about this guy, and sure enough, he had shown up in an LA
hospital, gut shot and in critical condition. The staff member swore and was visibly upset and Violetta
apologized for springing the news on him.
The inmates setting up chairs and the little stage are all members of bands. They have a
rock band , a reggae band, and a norteño band. I hang around talking to them for a half
hour or so and Violetta shows me her space for art and music. There is even a
recording studio. I ask one guy how often they rehearse, “Monday through Friday”,
and they perform whenever there’s an event. They are all playing at the holiday concert
the next day. The drummer told me he had just taken up drums in prison six months
ago. After the concert, he really wanted me to listen to some sampling that he had done,
but I had a Trout rehearsal in LA thatevening. I said that I’d be back and would love to
listen and coach. Make it before eight months, otherwise I’ll be out. I gave him my
card and said drop me an email to let me know how you’re doing. They ask me what I
am playing, and I say, “it’s a surprise”. As the men file in I hear that question being
asked and the band members repeating, “It’s a surprise”. “We start late because one of the groups has not arrived, and Violetta goes out looking
for them. One of the teachers takes advantage of the time to teach his class of about ten inmates a lesson in square roots. The inmates in the rows
behind them are calling out the right answers and he says, “ Hey you guys, quit that”. I explain to the audience of 150 or so about the silence, and
it’s going really well when, during the Sarabande of the third suite, an officer bangs in the door with a group of inmates and they’re making noise
in the back of the room. I see my audience turning around and staring at them in disgust. After the suite, I tell them that it was kind of an object
lesson in understanding that when the silence is broken, the mood is broken. The officer was searching the inmates before taking them outside the
gate. Violetta had offered him her art space but he thought it would be easier in the hall where he always did it. I did the “Turtle” and
“Mayonnaise”, and ended with “Scenes From Movies That Should Have Been Cut”. There were lots of great questions about music and what it
was like in Palestine and Afghanistan. I shook hands with most of the men and said goodbye to the band members. It had come out in the
questions that I spoke Spanish, so the singer in the Norteño band said, “Feliz Navidad” and I said, “Igualmente”. I said goodbye to Violetta and we
talked about what we could do next time including having a master class for some classical guitar and flute players and coaching the bands. I
thanked her for a great day and she said “You made me look good”.
The rest of my trip was a mash of rehearsals, studying Armenian, and then telling my story in Armenian at a couple of schools, and a fundraiser
for an Armenian music school, and the concert at the Zipper Theatre in downtown LA where I played the Trout Music for Children by Prokoviev
and told my story in English and then Armenian. Violetta was there.
I played at one more Prison, The RJ Donovan facility near the Border with Mexico. I played in the art room and most of the audience were guys
who used the room. Afterwards an inmate handed me a slip of paper. After I read it, David Brown the Arts Facilitator told me, “They all have it
memorized. Let’s go guys” and they chanted it in unison.
”WE ARTIST ARE INDESTRUCTIBLE: EVEN IN A PRISON, OR IN A CONCENTRATION CAMP, I WOULD BE ALMIGHTY IN MY OWN
WORLD OF ART, EVEN IF I HAD TO PAINT MY PICTURES WITH MY WET TONGUE ON THE DUSTY FLOOR OF MY CELL,”
There are little islands of sanity and humanity and art and music in prisons and they need to be supported. Check out David Brown’s web site,
We find the chaplain with a couple of inmates opening and sorting Christmas cards. “It’s a big job this time of year”, he says. He’s a heavy gruff
black man with greyish white hair. He agrees to come up the hill with us and unlock the office. He dismisses the two inmates and takes us in his old
sedan. Violetta tells me that he is the person who has gotten her though her first two months on the job, and that despite his manner, all the inmates
call him Daddy or Poppy. And sure enough every time we passed a group of inmates someone would call out “Hey Daddy”, and he’d give them a
flick of the hand. The prison is primarily for drug offences and there are many programs that inmates can enroll in. Violetta pointed out a group
coming out of class with an officer. Some of them will come to your concert this afternoon.
Southern California Tour, 2006