When California inmates take up music, a big concert breaks out

For an afternoon, the gymnasium in a Vacaville state prison transformed into a concert hall.

Inmates in hospice, psychiatric patients, correctional employees and even an officer shared the makeshift stage at the California Medical Facility on March 23 for its first-ever Prison Palooza – a three-hour show with four sets where inmates got the opportunity to perform music.

John Jackson, who suffers from liver cancer, and Keven “Dutch” Floyd, who suffers from several different kinds of cancer, were the first ones up to play to an audience of men in blue uniforms packed into the gym’s wooden benches.

The two both live in the prison’s hospice and performed as Grateful, a reference to their shared love of the iconic jam band the Grateful Dead. It also acknowledges their gratitude to be alive in the face of terminal illness, Jackson said.

“What’s really cool is when (other inmates) stop you and they shake your hand in the hallway or in the library or in school ... they’re like, ‘man you’re in hospice and you’re dying and you’re still doing all these things’ — that’s great,” Floyd said. “There’s no better feeling than making people enjoy music.”

The eclectic concert – which ranged from crooning acoustic ballads to hard-rocking funk – was designed to serve as more than a good show.

Chief Deputy Warden Daniel Cueva said part of the reason he wanted to establish the performance was the therapeutic nature of music.

“It’s much more than just music,” Cueva said. “They learn how to work together, be in a band. It’s rehabilitative. It’s not an ‘us versus them,’ it’s ‘how do we work together to make the product that they’re making?’ and it’s just fantastic to see what they do.”

Jackson, who rooms near Floyd in the hospice and plays music with him as often as he can, played lead guitar as Floyd sang and strummed his own instrument.

The duo opened with Green Day’s “Good Riddance.”

“It’s something unpredictable, but in the end it’s right / I hope you had the time of your life,” Floyd sang.

They also performed a song called “Hospice Blues,” which detailed the struggles of living with terminal illness in the ward, and “Illusion,” another original song about a prisoner killing himself.

For Jackson, Floyd and other inmate musicians, being able to perform alongside correctional staff was a novel experience.

Floyd said one of the employees involved in the show referred to him as “brother” for the first time. It didn’t feel like inmates and correctional staff interacting, he said, just musicians playing together.

“Today seeing that officer play – I’ve been incarcerated for 30 years and that was one of the best things I’ve ever experienced in all that 30 years,” Jackson said, holding back tears behind the thick yellow lenses of his black-rimmed glasses.

Cueva said having staff on stage with the inmates provided an opportunity for “a change of culture” and collaboration.

Landon Jackson, who sang for the CMF House Band, said training and working with correctional employees for the concert wasn’t just about practicing music. It was about personal development and making strides toward his release, too.

“Sometimes you only see the negative side of it. You’re convicted of something, so they hold you to that,” he said. “But to have somebody who comes in and wants to rehabilitate you ... it’s a wonderful experience, to be treated like a human.”

Being a musician in the prison transcends race and prison politics, Landon Jackson said, and after all the months of practice that he had put in, being able to connect with other inmates through his music was intensely rewarding for him.

Music therapist Tim McGinty played drums with the A3 Project, a band composed mostly of inmates from the prison’s psychiatric ward.

McGinty, who specializes with psychiatric patients, said some of the men he works with struggle with confidence issues, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and substance abuse, but music can help them to manage their emotions and collaborate with others.

“(I’m) seeing these guys grow in self-esteem and confidence, seeing them for the first time in their life be a part of something that’s productive and not destructive,” McGinty said. “I’ve been working professionally as a music therapist for 20 years and to be able to see these guys tell me after past concerts that this ensemble group literally changed their life — these are comments that are not to be taken lightly.”

Lew Fratis, a music teacher at the prison who played guitar for the CMF House Band and also for his personal band with outside musicians, said practicing under professional musicians builds discipline among the inmates.

“When they’re doing something positive, when they do something they’re looking forward to, it just makes a tremendous difference. Some of them, if they didn’t have this, I don’t know what would happen to them,” Fratis said. “They start seeing that they’re capable of something that they really didn’t think they were capable of. ... You can see what just some positive encouragement will do for them, and most of them are going to be out on the street again.”

The prison has other music programs and events, Cueva said, but Prison Palooza, which featured a dozen or so inmates, was the first event of such a large scale.

The concert was put on in part through the prison’s Arts in Corrections program, a statewide initiative implemented by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Arts Council meant to aid in inmates’ rehabilitation.

The concert was also meant as a reward for the inmates in attendance for good behavior, Cueva said.

Cueva said he wants the next Prison Palooza to be even bigger, and he hopes to bring in other outside bands to play as well.

“This is like my 14th year in prison. Every night I go to sleep in a cell,” Landon Jackson said. “We disappear in the music. We’re no longer in prison when we’re playing music. That’s the beautiful thing about it.”

Vincent Moleski covers business and breaking news for The Bee and is a graduate student in literature at Sacramento State. He was born and raised in Sacramento and previously wrote for the university’s student newspaper, the State Hornet.