New Folsom Prison Blues

The quest to keep the arts alive in one of California’s toughest prisons

Written by Angela Watercutter
Drawings by Wendy MacNaughton

On a mild Monday morning Zoe Boekbinder walks onto a large circular track with a guitar slung over her shoulder and is greeted by smile as bright as the California sun overhead. A young man named Alex struts across a yard at New Folsom Prison — shirt off, countless tattoos turning his skin into a canvas — says “hey,” and asks if she’s ready for class.

This morning Boekbinder will be teaching a writing workshop to Alex (short for Alejandro) and handful of other inmates at New Folsom (formally known as California State Prison, Sacramento). But her relationship with the guy known on the yard as “Shell Dog” is a little different than it is with his fellow inmates in the prison’s A Facility.

“The song that inspired my whole album was inspired by his raps,” Boekbinder says heading off the yard and into the facility’s main building.

Boekbinder, a folksinger by trade, has been coming here for years. After a chance meeting at one of her shows with a woman who knew someone who ran the arts program at New Folsom, located just outside of Sacramento, Boekbinder got a chance to fulfill her admittedly Johnny Cash-like aspirations of performing in prison. Then she came back again. And again. Now she teaches music and writing here, performs for inmates, and has began working on an album of songs derived from music inspired by the songs of the rappers and bluesmen she’s met behind bars.

“Turning prison raps into folk songs” sounds a bit curious, even awkward, until you see it in action. Boekbinder walks inside accompanied by Jim Carlson, who despite the title “recreation therapist” leads the arts program at New Folsom, and after a brief stop in his office to go over the day’s classes, heads into the art room.

The art room used to be a conference room. Carlson commandeered it a few years ago and began accumulating supplies inside — half-completed drawings and writing supplies sit locked in cages along the walls. The first to enter the room is Jeremy or just ‘’J’’ (to protect the privacy of everyone involved only the first names or yard names of the prisoners will be used in this story). Just behind him is Alex, still smiling, toothpick in his mouth.

As the rest of the class files in, Boekbinder asks Alex, a 29-year-old inmate who has been at New Folsom for nearly decade, if he’ll recite his poem “Survivalist” — to which he responds, “Will you do it with me?” She grabs her guitar and begins to pluck out a beat as he raps. But her song — the one she’s written based on his words — is meant to be sung and they can’t match their rhythms. Finally Alex gets up and just begins banging out a rhythm on a nearby table using an open palm and a closed fist. “Survivalist. I feel like I was meant to go through this … I’ve been through hella shit… “ Not the lyrics to your average folk song.

Class officially begins and Boekbinder instructs the students — nine guys total — to free write for ten minutes (today’s prompt: Mason jar) and leads them through a couple rounds of rewrites where they pick their best turns of phrase from each round to complete a poem. In this room, like the art class later in the afternoon, there is a sense of relief among the students, the liberation of being able to look at anything besides over their shoulder.

Class ends and Boekbinder and Alex both do their versions of “Survivalist.” In her version — an acoustic, finger-plucked hymn sung in her distinct vibrato — she’s changed his “I wonder what would’ve happened if this did not occur/ I wonder where I would be at without my hook and verse” to “Where would he be if this did not occur/Where would he be without his hook and verse” but the grin on Alex’s face indicates he doesn’t mind. Ask him after class if he minds a young woman from the outside using his words and you’d be reminded that without her they may never leave this penitentiary.

“I’m feeling like I’m getting something up off of me,” he says.

The guy known outside this room as Shell Dog says he’s grateful for the pastime — and most of the convicts here seem aware of how fortunate they are to have the outlet — but they may all not know just how lucky. Arts programs in California prisons are few and far between. After an almost three-decade run, the Arts-in-Corrections program ended in 2010 amidst the state’s budget crisis and most of the heads of those programs at California’s 33 state prisons — known as “artist facilitators” — were placed in other positions, or simply left. New Folsom’s artist facilitator, Carlson, however found a way to keep his program alive by becoming a recreation therapist. Where most people in his position offer therapy in the form of games or reading or sports, Carlson organizes writing workshops, drawing classes, performances from people like Boekbinder, and opportunities for prisoners to share music and poetry they’ve written.

The evidence of Carlson’s work is all over his office. The space is a concrete box about the size of the average hotel room, which he shares with three other recreation therapists. Books — many of them donated and still stamped with “Arts-in-Corrections” — fill bookshelves and baskets, as do boxes and carts containing Scrabble and Connect Four. Sitting in a swivel chair at his wood desk, 63-year-old Carlson explains the ins and outs of his program. A Facility, where we are today, is the mental health facility as well as the place for inmates with sensitive needs — like those trying to escape gang ties. Here prisoners work with a clinician to set up their schedules, and most are supposed to do ten hours a week of activities like the arts workshops. They don’t all participate in Carlson’s workshops — in fact of the roughly 2,000-3,500 total inmates in New Folsom, he estimates only 5-10 percent ever step foot in an art or writing class — but these days it’s likely more than most of the state’s other correctional facilities, and the program has an ally in warden Tim Virga, even if it has to get by on nickel-and-diming.

“This institution is pretty unique,” Carlson says. “Pretty supportive of what we’re trying to do.”

Jim Carlson never thought he’d end up in prison.

The Arts-in-Corrections program was launched in 1980 when the California legislature began augmenting the corrections department’s budget by about $400,000 for arts education, encouraged by a non-government-funded pilot program started at the California Medical Facility prison in Vacaville in 1977. At the time Carlson began working for the program at San Quentin State Prison in 1984 — some three years after leaving a tenured university position at Azusa Pacific University to move back to Northern California — the institution’s arts program was one of the highest-functioning. “They were hiring artists off the streets with no prison experience and all of the sudden you were put in a prison and ‘Ok, now go create a program.’” But despite that, Carlson says genuinely enjoyed developing arts education at San Quentin.

After about five years at San Quentin, Carlson went to work at California Department of Corrections (now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) headquarters in Sacramento and eventually found himself running Arts-in-Corrections. About five years later, and following an increase in prison arts programs from 12 facilities to nearly 30 (the state currently has 33 prisons), Carlson went to New Folsom to become its artist facilitator. These were the glory days of Arts-in-Corrections, when Carlson estimates the program had about $4 million in annual funding state-wide and his budget afforded about $30,000 to $40,000 per year for contracts to bring in artists, writers, and others to teach. “I think my overall program like the music program — biasedly and egotistically — I would’ve put it up against almost any junior college program.”

Beginning in 2003, funding, which the Arts-in-Corrections program had to fight for in each annual budget already, began to dry up and there was no longer cash to bring in instructors. By 2010, it was all but gone along with the artist facilitators.

“People will often say, ‘Well, why are you spending this kind of money on prisoners?’” Carlson says. “But they fail to look at the fact that the prison program was supporting 250 artists in California annually by giving them a little bit of a living wage, allowing them to make art in their communities. And 33 prisons went from Pelican Bay to Blythe in the desert, so every local community had art money infused into that community.”

So now, Carlson works with volunteers. Which is why Boekbinder is standing in a concrete room, staring at a wall of individual cells — officially known as “therapeutic modules” unofficially known as “cages” — wearing a stab vest and tuning a guitar. It’s the morning after her writing class and she’s putting on a show for guys in what’s known as “administrative segregation” –what they call “the hole.”

As much as one wouldn’t expect a room full of convicts to enjoy sweet folk songs produced entirely by an acoustic guitar, the Boomerang Phase III Sampler on the floor and Boekbinder’s (albeit lovely) voice — they do. It takes a few songs for the room to warm up, but eventually heads begin to bob. And by the time she plays “Monster” — a track written based on poetry given to her by another inmate — the room is hers.

“I’m stealing that one,” one inmate says as the final notes echo through the room.

“I stole it too,” Boekbinder responds.

She goes into what will be her fifth and last song, “Gravity.” Boekbinder makes a beat by hitting her microphone with her hand and looping it through the Boomerang III Phase Sampler, then makes a vocal loop through the same process. One inmate, who had spent most of the session sitting grouchily in his cell, all of the sudden stands and begins swaying to the beat. When she sings “I don’t want to be remembered for the worst I’ve ever done” more than one head in the room nods in agreement.

The performance is over, but Boekbinder has something else she’d like to do. She’s going to make a beat using her looping machine and asks the prisoners in the room for help. “Make a sound on your cage,” she encourages. “I mean therapeutic modules…” She walks around asking guys if they want to rap or sing and while most egg each other on more than participate, finally a 31-year-old inmate named David (“aka The Joker”) offers a hook.

“I’m the ball and chain killer/I’m a ball and chain, like a time-bomb going straight to the brain.”

The hook is looped and in a matter of time inmates are trying to rap on the beat and if there weren’t guards waiting outside to take them away, this could be a hit in the making.

People like to ask Boekbinder if she is ever afraid when going to perform in prison. (The answer: Not really.) And in general, the whole process leaves her seemingly unfazed.

On her first visit to the prison Carlson had her perform three times (once for the guys in the hole) and reflecting on it now, Boekbinder thinks Carlson might’ve packed her schedule in case it would be a while before she could come back. At the end of the day Carlson took her to Karen’s Bakery, which donates baked goods to the prisoners at New Folsom during the holidays, and Boekbinder asked him what he knew about the crimes committed by the inmates he worked with. As it turned out, not much. And he doesn’t make an effort to find out.

“I wouldn’t want to be remembered for the worst thing I’ve ever done,” Carlson told her.

New Folsom’s C Facility houses its general population inmates. It’s also where musicians come to jam. This afternoon Boekbinder comes to the music room in C for a “song share” with a group of inmates, many of whom she’s been working with for almost as long as she’s been coming here.

There’s Robert, a 54-year-old prisoner whose been in the music program for five years; Marko, who came to Old Folsom in 1987 and has worked with Carlson for some 15 years; and Billy, who is the newbie of the bunch, having only been in the music group for about a year or so. But the ringleaders are clearly 53-year-old Marty and 70-year-old Ken, both of whom were incarcerated in the 1980s and are the ones Boekbinder seems to work with most closely.

The music room is covered in posters for everyone from Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips to Jewel to Boekbinder herself. The occupancy limit is 19 but today there are only six musicians (including Boekbinder) and a recreation therapist named Kari Zamora. Normally there are many more, but after some conflicts with the African-American prisoners and the Mexican prisoners, the black inmates are on lockdown — leaving their blues band missing many key members, including a singer.

When there’s no lockdown, “we would fill this room” Marty notes. He adds that in New Folsom, where all of the boundaries between prisoners — and their gang affiliations — are determined by race, the music group is the one place where everyone can hang out without incident.

“This is a haven,” he says. “People are eager to leave some stuff behind.”

For the next two hours the group just plays. Everyone knows each other’s songs or finds ways to join in even if they don’t. Boekbinder jams on some tracks she’s been writing and everyone that plays shares at least a little something about where the song came from. The tunes are what one might expect — bluesy rock odes to lost loves and life inside — but there’s warmness to the room that’s completely unanticipated. (The night before Carlson had commented about the “softening of [Ken]’s heart” and it’s as plain as day.)

Of anyone in this space, Marty is the veteran. Having been at New Folsom since 1993 (he transferred from Old Folsom) and involved with the arts program for almost a decade, he knows how valuable it is, if only to him. “I would’ve sat in a gym and played my guitar and been bitter and resentful about nobody knowing what a genius I was [if Carlson wasn’t around],” he says. And he can remember the good-old days — when Arts-in-Corrections had funding, and Carlson could pay instructors to come in, and the inmates pretty much ran the program as students and teachers.

“This place was golden for a long time,” Marty says. “A lot of guys choose the non-Oz prison experience. And that leaves a bad taste in the mouth of a lot of guys who choose to be active [in gangs].”

Advocates of prison arts programs often argue that prisoners benefit from them because it provides inmates with self-discipline and, in turn, society benefits when those prisoners are let out. That can sound like a touchy-feely explanation and even though studies have shown participants in the program have lower recidivism rates and fewer disciplinary incidents while inside, numbers don’t show the effect on individuals.

Song share ends with Ken and Boekbinder playing a song called “All Over Again” that Ken wrote and that the singer’s been working on for an upcoming album. When it ends, Ken looks at Boekbinder and simply says, “Thank you” with sincere and cloudy eyes.

“It tickles the shit out of me,” he says when asked what he thinks of Boekbinder’s version. “The biggest compliment one songwriter can pay to another is to use their material.”

Even though Carlson doesn’t look into the past crimes of the inmates he works with, he does occasionally find out in the course of his work, like when he writes letters of recommendation for inmates that have shown improvement. He knows that the guys he works with often deserve to be incarcerated. It’s a mental conflict he often has to work through. When he speaks about the work he does with prisoners he often notes that he’s never been the victim of a violent crime and neither has anyone in his family — and he doesn’t mean to apologize for the crimes his students have committed. He merely wants to attest to the positive changes they’ve made since he’s known them.

“There are two truths,” he says.

And this is the rub. There is no doubt that what Carlson does at New Folsom has benefits. A corrections department study of participants in the program who were paroled between 1980 to 1987 found that two years after release, 69 percent of Arts-in-Corrections parolees had favorable outcomes (i.e. they didn’t return to incarceration) while only 42 percent of non-participants had similar outcomes. And in 1983 a study by Larry Brewster — now a professor in the management school at the University of San Francisco — found the program to be cost-effective in terms of its societal, taxpayer and individual benefits. He also found that there was a 75 percent reduction in disciplinary infractions for prisoners at one facility while they were participating in the program.

But getting money for prisoners being held in maximum security from a cash-strapped state is a tough sell. California may be one of the more liberal states in the country, but with more than 130,000 inmates it’s also a fairly incarcerated one. But not all of its inmates will be incarcerated forever.

“They’re going to be our neighbors, I would prefer them to feel better about themselves, to have skills — both life skills and job skills — that will give them at least some hope of creating a life for themselves and their families,” says Brewster, who followed up his 1983 study in 2010 with a similar evaluation on the program’s qualitative effects. “And if we refuse to do that we simply are continuing to turn very angry people and unskilled people back out into the community.”

Brewster now sits on the board of the William James Association, the Santa Cruz-based non-profit that throughout the Arts-in-Corrections’ three-decade run contracted with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to bring instructors to the state’s prisons. The organization is now working on bringing arts programs back, even if they have to be funded through private donations or other arts organizations, and there still are a few arts programs here and there (at San Quentin, for example). Boekbinder is working on her album of the songs inspired by the inmates’ work, and plans to give nearly 100 percent of its proceeds to assist in prison arts programs.

Something needs to happen soon. Carlson notes that there are still former artist facilitators who could be resurrected if new funds came in, but those folks may not be in a position to jump back into the fray for much longer. “There’s this window that’s getting smaller and smaller,” he says. Carlson himself has already attempted to retire once and even though it didn’t stick, he knows it has to happen sooner or later.

It’s clear Carlson has been thinking a lot about what happens next with his life’s work. Sitting in his living room in a community about five miles from the prison gate, he thinks for a second before answering what he’d like to see happen before he retires. He knows that when he does, there’s a slim chance the recreation therapist who replaces him will also have his background in arts education, and perhaps an even slimmer chance that artist facilitators will be brought back to New Folsom.

“I would love,” he says. “To be able to hand this off to somebody who has the energy to carry on.”

Five feet away, Boekbinder sits on her computer, working on another song.

This story was originally reported in 2012. Since then Zoe Boekbinder has been working on her album of prison songs. She is currently writing and recording 100 songs in 100 days to raise money for the album. You can follow the project here and donate here.

Angela Watercutter is a San Francisco-based writer for Wired. She is also a senior editor of Longshot magazine and a contributor to Pop-Up Magazine.

Wendy MacNaughton is an illustrator. Her book of illustrated journalism “Meanwhile in San Francisco” comes out in March, 2014, from Chronicle Books.

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