Grace finds the goodness
Spearhead enlightens New Folsom prison on Thanksgiving Eve
The half-mile route from the visitor center to C-yard chapel in California State Prison, Sacramento, (aka “New Folsom”) is tough going. Crossing a series of intimidating barriers provides the only break in the monotonous landscape, defined chiefly by a series of identical windowless cinder-block buildings. There’s the 12-foot metal fence with barbed wire and an electrified gate overseen by a guard tower; the ominous boom of the control room’s large metal door sliding shut; a hallway where guards study prisoners on suicide watch; and the yard where inmates in jeans and light-blue shirts play basketball, walk laps, or converse in clusters, surrounded by concrete buildings and armed guards. As a visitor on the eve of Thanksgiving, weathering this oppressive tedium even for a few hours was enough to make one grateful for life on the outside.
All that differentiated the chapel from the other concrete structures was the metal sign that identifies it, and the sound of laughter coming from inside. On this unusual day, the chapel bustled with musicians, sound technicians, prison staff and inmates. Everyone was preparing for the Spearhead concert which would be taped that afternoon and broadcast on sponsoring station KVMR and across the country that night. Spearhead frontman Michael Franti roamed the chapel, chatting with guests and his opening acts—folk singers Diane Patterson, Melissa Mitchell, and Kimberly Bass.
KVMR broadcaster and producer Cheri Snook, chief engineer of KVMR’s partnership with the prison, greeted visitors warmly. “I’m hoping we can hang out in the back,” she said, “because these guys are going up front to dance. Aren’t you, Jeff?” She directed the last question to an inmate, who shook his head laughing. “That’ll be the day,” he said.
The rest of the inmates, nearly 50 men from the Arts in Corrections program, all dressed in jeans and light-blue shirts, arrived as the sound check ended. “It’s good to see you smiling today,” a woman who leads a prison book group said to a young inmate wearing sunglasses. “It’s a blessed day,” he replied, hugging her.
The warden, Scott Kernan, was ushered to the stage with a round of applause. Once there, he spoke of the recent addition of the words “and Rehabilitation” to the title of the California Department of Corrections. “Rehabilitation is not my responsibility” he told the inmates. “It is your responsibility. It’s my job to provide an opportunity for you to look inside, and to look ahead to when you get out.” Many of the men nodded knowingly.
Inmate Spoon Jackson opened the show with an original poem, “No Beauty in Cell Bars.” “We saw the beauty in butterflies,” he intoned. “We made them our symbol.” Jackson’s performance was followed by a soulful song played on 12-string guitar by an inmate called Marty, and then by the peace-positive music of the three female folk singers, before Spearhead took the stage to vigorous applause.
From the first bouncy rhythms of “Pray for Grace,” everyone—inmates, prison staff, and guests—clapped and danced. “Grace finds the beauty in ugly things,” Franti sang. “Because grace finds the goodness in everything.”
In the monotonous concrete environment of captivity, the yearning for variety, for a bit of sweetness, for relief and connection was overpowering. So when Franti called out, “We’re gonna have a soul shakedown party in Folsom today, y’all!” no one dared turn down such a rare invitation. Among the inmates, there was no trace of the cynicism or inhibition common at concerts in the outside world. There was only gratitude for witnessing this moving performance, and the utmost determination to enjoy every minute of it. When Franti closed the two-hour show with the chant “One bright morning when my work is over, I’ll fly away home,” the cheers continued long after the soundman stopped taping.
As visitors separated from inmates and filed through gates and checkpoints to the outside, the closing words of Jim Carlson, facilitator for Arts in Corrections, buoyed spirits. “Michael,” he said, “as we all fly away home to whatever shape our cell is in, it’s a bigger cell and it’s a lot lighter now. Thank you.”