The Beauty that is, at New Folsom Prism

Massive Day . . . Thank you, Spirit

Osyan's porch, Big Island of Hawaii

I remember the first time I went in to New Folsom Maximum Security Prison very well. I was soooo nervous as I stood in the back of the cinder block chapel of Facility C, waiting for the introductions to finish. I  started the music that day on my djembe, walking from the back of the room as I played, bringing the rhythm, the heartbeat, the soul from the Outside . . .  to the inmates, the Men in Blue, on the Inside.

It was Thanksgiving Eve, 2006, and Michael Franti and Spearhead headlined that day as maybe 80 prisoners slowly came to life and momentary liberation, dancing, jumping, being a part of the life stream that is music. Also Melissa Mitchell and Kimberly Bass performed two songs each before Spearhead rocked us all into the new world. KVMR Nevada City’s stellar indy radio station crew were there organizing and running sound and green room for the musicians and crew. Cheri Snook, a long-time KVMR DJ, definitely had a big hand in creating the event. She had been playing my Live at the Palms 1995 CD on her early morning shows for a couple years before finding me that summer and then inviting me to play this event. And Jim Carlson, who’s worked Arts in Corrections for over 25 years, including at San Quentin, just opened every door of possibility he could open in New Folsom that day with his excellence in communication and integrity with the institution. Jim is the reason I can still keep visiting. He’s held down his position with Arts in Corrections, miraculously, even when Arts in Corrections was essentially cut from the entire state’s programs in January of last year.

For the concert in 2006, the cameras were rolling, and Franti’s crew and KVMR created a national live radio broadcast for Pacifica stations and a beautiful DVD video of the entire show. The energy climbed so high in the simple chapel that day, and was even so clear and clean, for a prison, you might guess, as we arrived to set up, very early in the morning. So the songs flew high and strong, like eagles and condors finally reuniting after generations of societal separation and environmental destruction.  I sang Remember We Are One, and spoke of the power of words creating our reality.

My most powerful Michael moment was when he was singing Never Too Late. Coming to the line, “Don’t fear your family, Cause you chose them a long time before your birth,” Michael moved his big hands and long arms in a wide sweeping motion over his body, from chest, down to pelvis — the motion of a baby moving through the birth canal! I was quite impressed by that simple yet huge remembrance of where we ALL come from, regardless of where we are now, and what we’ve done to get there.

Living memories, I was, as I took new friends in to New Folsom last Friday March 23, 2012. My good friend, medicine music lead guitarist and Native American Church singer Al Torre, had come in to New Folsom with me twice over the last four years. But mystic singer, Freedom, had never been inside a prison to share his music, had probably never been inside a prison. And SaraTone, the mighty singer of rivers and mountains, like Freedom from the Northlands of Cascadia, was also experiencing her first prison visit.

After three razor wire checkpoints, full airport-type inspection, and having weeks previous filed our stats to be cleared through the system of a maximum security prison, we entered the “A” Facility anteroom to the Cage Room. “A” Facility houses the men who need the most psychological support. The cage room is small, flanked along the back wall with 10 phone booth-sized cages, where a man in each cage can sit or stand and, relatively comfortably, take in some kind of program or teaching. The men who had signed up to receive our offerings that day were already in place in the cages when we arrived. A small sound system went up, just to amplify Al’s acoustic lead guitar work. But we sang and played and shared ourselves directly from the heart, an hour and a half I guess, through the cage wires, and right into the eyes and hearts of the men assembled there.

We even wore stab-proof vests for that scenario. I think Jim forgot to tell us that day, but I’ve been informed plenty before about the No-Hostages policy at New Folsom. This means that, if an inmate were to grab one of us and try to threaten our life for his freedom, the prison would do nothing to protect us, thereby disempowering the prisoners try such a tactic. We go in with everyone, especially the prisoners, knowing this. It works for me.

And in spite of all this precaution and very stark circumstance, the connection through the music is strong. Some of the men who have seen and heard me over the last 5 years have seen me grow in my art and have reflected that back to me. One inmate, who I didn’t see this time because all the African American men were on lockdown (and he is in Facility “C”), has been corresponding with me on and off, since before I first went in, actually. That’s the poet Spoon Jackson. If you’ve read any of my past stories of Folsom visits, then you know that in 2008 I culminated a European pilgrimage quite significant to me by taking Spoon’s greetings to a great musician in Stockholm, Sweden. Stefan Safsten has composed two full-length albums worth of intricate, 30-part choral pieces for Spoon Jackson’s poetry.

On last Friday’s visit, the four of us did three shows and spent 7 hours in the prison. For me there is an extreme presence that I feel within myself when I am there. Part of this feeling is just being in a very strictly-operated institution that requires me to follow lots of rules and not mess up so as to ensure everyone’s safety and to allow me to keep returning. We have to be sure to leave outside anything that can be made into a weapon. Once I left my hunk-o-metal guitar capo lying on the “A” Facility library floor unsupervised for a moment, and then I quickly picked it up and put it back in my lap when I realized I’d forgotten. And part of the intense presence I feel comes from the tragic situation of facing men imprisoned, many for life, and seeing the high population of African American, Latino and Native American men in the prisons, and hoping like heaven that I can represent something else besides the system which oppresses, devalues, and creates desperation, abuse, and lack of opportunity.

Music inside the prison carries us to an open state of being, connecting us all on a level that is beyond class, prison walls, privilege, mistakes, and forgiveness. I appreciate my position inside of not knowing the stories. I feel that this allows us all to be simply in the present, humbly respecting each other’s very different realities, without letting sorrow color our human connection in these rare moments.

The guys loved Al Torre’s lead guitar playing. Many of the inmates are musicians themselves, learning and teaching as part of their prison life. So when Al was tearing it up, the men were stretching their necks to see, and smiling, and clapping after solos.

Freedom’s songs liberate and balance us as people in such a natural way that one could be unaware of the healing that’s happening as they listen. But the words give the medicine away, and the New Folsom inmates heard every one. “I hear the sound of the prison walls crumbling.. . Set yourself free!” It’s metaphorical for many, but in the prison, it’s a deep, cool pool to dive into, on a painfully hot day.

SaraTone. . . I like bringing women into the prison with me. And the women I’ve brought in are, for the most part, strong and sure and soaring in their artistic and spiritual lives. I have received only respect from the inmates in New Folsom, as well as from the guards and staff. I like being a woman in that context because I feel like we are creating a new paradigm of gender relations when I’m there. My visits are so very much about the music, about the present moment, about seeing beyond birth, gender, circumstance, and every other separating ism schism that falls aside, making room to simply be our highest selves in those moments.

SaraTone spoke well from her heart that day. She spoke of rivers, and change and what’s happening out there on the Outside, and what we are doing to make the best of it, activating, speaking out. One of the guys in the second group we played for asked if we are writing songs with content, with recognition of what’s happening in the world, with human rights, environment, and all. And boy, he was asking the right group about that. SaraTone played songs that put his mind at ease and soothed his mortal soul. We were all smiling.

I opened each of the three sets we did with Eagle Feather, the song that opens the energetic space so well, and sings of that feather which is an antenna for our prayers. I’m not nervous anymore to play for the Men in Blue. The men I’ve had the opportunity to speak with have assured me that my visits are very much appreciated, and my stories, though of circumstances they may never experience, are alive and colorful and meaningful for them nonetheless.

Folsom Prison stands on a beautiful piece of land. Rolling oak hills hold the huge complex which is New Folsom Prison and the older 1800’s -built Folsom Prison next door, all full of men trapped in a system we may well yet outgrow. Wild turkeys are always gobbling about the parking lot when I arrive. They are the ones that first alerted me to the vitality of the land.

There is a vision and prayer that I softly hold for that place, and it is that the men of Folsom Prism, as I call it, will build with their own hands a vast agricultural system which feeds themselves and their entire watershed, with healthy, healing, organic, local food; and that the work will heal their bodies and souls and make of them honest, satisfied, happy people; and that the food will heal their bodies and strengthen their hearts and minds for this cruel and beautiful world.

So, I lift my eagle feather and see it all evolving in one slow, steady, spring rain of forgiveness and creation and perseverance on our highest path potential. This is my vision. And this that I have shared above — musical connection beyond prison walls — is the beauty that is, right now.

photo by Benjamin Fahrer



2 thoughts on “The Beauty that is, at New Folsom Prism

  1. Dan Hester says:

    Touching story Diane. I can relate to the divine presence that permeates the area of New and Old Folsom. I spent nine months inside in 2003-2004. Although I was a free-man going inside every workday of the week, I felt as if I were one of them. I was sad to leave at the end of my job, but happy to never enter it’s gates again. In Old Folsom I supervised six inmates in the construction of a gun tower. In New Folsom I was one of many supervisors with about forty inmates building New folsom. Both were unbelievable experiences. I felt at home with the inmates not the guards. Sad, but we all have our roll to play. Thanks for your story

  2. Jodi Levine says:

    Diane – thank you for your truth, your beauty, your courage, the way that you communicate with the divine and bring the voice back to us all.
    keep writing! I love reading your story unfolding.


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