VACAVILLE — Rising above the loud buzzing of the sally port locking and unlocking, the soulful strains of “Just My Imagination” float through the halls of the California State Prison Solano.
Upon entering, the bluesy rhythm of the Temptations song fills the room, and the small group of people assembled to listen can’t help but nod their heads in time and sing along. The pitch is perfect, the timing is just right and, for a moment, it’s easy to imagine the venue as a sold-out concert hall instead of the brightly painted visiting room of the prison.
Meet the musicians of Music Innovators, a self-help group formed by inmates who have two things in common: a love for playing music and a desire to rehabilitate themselves.
“Part of rehabilitation is learning how to function like you would on the outside,” said Tonya Parker-Mashburn, community resources manager for the prison.
Music Innovators is more than a bunch of musicians getting together for a jam session. Its 75 members are tightly organized, with practices scheduled throughout the week, equipment tuned and maintained and musicians held accountable for attending practice and helping the group function.
Level II Associate Warden Kim Young said Music Innovators is an example of the self-help programs she supports at the prison. Not only does the program give inmates the opportunity to express themselves and display their talents, it also provides an array of life skills that will be invaluable when they return to their communities.
“That’s what drives me: To give people the opportunity to change their lives,” Young said.
The program members have formed more than a dozen bands ranging in genres as diverse as the musicians themselves: Blues, rock, country, even heavy metal are played. Some of the inmates play different instruments in several bands.
Khaliyfah Taylor, who grew up playing music, never thought he’d find himself in a metal band, but here he is, singing and playing drums, keyboard and guitar as needed. The several groups he belongs to include Di-Ma-Ryp, which is “pyramid” spelled backward, a nod to his Egyptian upbringing.
During a recent rehearsal, Taylor belted out the lyrics to his original song “Madiba,” a tribute to the late Nelson Mandela.
“It’s kind of like therapy for me,” said Louis Watson, bass player for the band Magic Carpet. “It keeps your mind free, directed, focused. The music program is one of the primary things that I need.”
Watson is no stranger to the stage; a bass player since age 5, he once performed with Little Richard and with soul/R&B stars Tony! Toni! Toné! He credits the music program with his rehabilitation in terms of his mind and his body. Choices made in the past resulted in gunshot wounds to his hand – he didn’t think he’d ever play again. The Music Innovators came calling in 1998, and he slowly began his recovery.
“I’ve reformed my life, and I want to give back, and continue to give back,” Watson said. He pointed out that rehearsing and performing together gives inmates the skills needed to work well with others under stressful situations.
Troy Johnson, another bass player and background vocalist for Soul Theory, also stopped playing for a time, but picked his instrument back up thanks to the program.
“It’s cathartic,” he said. “No matter what type of problems you’re going through, everything just falls away.”
The program’s therapeutic value, coupled with the lessons in patience, responsibility and accountability, resulted in a major life change for Frederick Varner, who was granted parole and returned home in June. During his parole hearing, he said, he spoke at length about how the program changed his life for the better.
“The Music Innovators have been very instrumental as a morale developer and maintainer,” he said. “It’s really fulfilling.”
The inmate coordinator for the program is Antonio Morris, who coordinates practices and performances for institution events such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day visiting and the twice-monthly Friday Night Lights events that feature motivational speakers and the band. Those “gigs” teach the musicians the importance of following through on commitments.
“If you don’t take a personal interest in yourself,” he said, “you can’t expect anyone else to.”
The instruments are donated by community members and local musicians, and the musicians take great pride in repairing and maintaining their equipment. In addition to performances and lengthy rehearsals – eight hours every Saturday – several inmate musicians volunteer to give music lessons to other inmates.
Drummer Jesus Gonzalez speaks with a thick Cuban accent, but the language of music is universal, as proven by his successful and well-attended percussion classes.
“I love to do it, because of how it feels to be able to help other people,” he said. “God gave me the gift, and it makes me happy to share it.”
Lamont Williams, the voice behind “Just My Imagination” at the beginning of rehearsal, said at first that he sings simply “to give people something they like to hear.” But upon further reflection, he said that there’s something much deeper that comes with being part of the program.
“There’s a good feeling in it – we love doing it,” he said. “You have to connect with your soul when you play music.”
Krissi Khokhobashvili is a public relations officer for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.