I don’t often think about criminals. Its not that the subject isn’t important, it’s just that with a Whole Foods down the street joined by a multi-million dollar super-mall, its easy to get caught up in the Folsom bubble. I suppose it’s this sheltered-ness that makes the most threatening interaction I’ve witnessed all month take place between a used-car salesman and my protective father-in-law. But as I entered the grounds at San Quentin Prison, the dichotomy between my neatly plastic-wrapped life and the inmate’s life-sentence was in fact the one thing I couldn’t remove from my thoughts.
My furrowed brow and white knuckles must have been a flickering white distress flag because I only got a few yards hauling my equipment before being greeted by my bodyguard. Daryle held out a burly hand and big smile before leading my amp down the steep driveway to the baseball diamond where the stage stood. Daryle, a husky man with skin shimmering like coal, was one of a handful of prisoners at San Quentin tasked with being The Reel’s bodyguards. The irony was startling for us too. Our security officers were comprised of a group of individuals that formerly threatened, to the very least, the security of others. Shortly after arriving, we were debriefed on the events of the day and the strict policy to abide by; namely, in the event of a riot, find a prisoner with a star next to their name. They are there to help you.
The Reel was one of three bands playing that Saturday afternoon at San Quentin’s annual concert, but I think what the prisoners had really been looking forward to was their only cooked meal all year, the all-American Weiner-Schnitzel — admittedly, a hard act to follow. We’d estimated that around three thousand inmates were packed like sardines in a line that stretched around the baseball field for one glorious hot dog. Meanwhile, while preparing for our set, we worried about how our positive “mayonnaise” messages would be received sandwiched between the two hip-hop acts of the day. Songs with lyrics such as, “things are gonna change” and “this is time of your life” proved to have a slightly more figurative effect in this context. Nonetheless, we stuck to our guns… I mean, our instruments.
The line continued to grow as prisoners–hot dog-in-hand–gathered in front of the stage, but not like fans eagerly waiting a sing-a-long. Rather, their expressions gave off an air of quizzical reservation. With his drumsticks tapping, Christian counted in our song “Come Alive.” I didn’t look up much, but the few times I did, all I saw were people staring up at us moving slightly to the beat. Cameron, seemingly unfazed by this new audience, slid effortlessly across the stage. Halfway through the set things started to dawn on me. What an honor this all was. We were playing our music in a maximum-security prison, notorious for housing the worst criminals in the Western Hemisphere. I was standing a few feet away from murderers, drug-dealers, thieves, and rapists playing “Stand By Me” and imploring them to sing along. As the band stopped, and Cameron shouted “Come on now, let me hear you sing: Darling, stand by me…” I couldn’t help but think this was something so much larger than The Reel. The band all looked at each other as the yard of San Quentin prisoners joined together in song. It was one of the most beautiful moments we have ever witnessed.
San Quentin reminded us why we do what we do. Sure, playing shows, writing hooks, arranging moments, and watching people respond positively is tremendously flattering. But we believe that music can be more than just a dance-party organized in three-minute intervals. Music bridges the gap between people with nothing in common. It makes us feel free. It helps us say things we are unable to say to those we don’t even know. For a moment we were not performing just another show for a semi-reluctant audience, we were helping people feel human.
We shook hands with prisoners. Talked with them. Even laughed. And before we left we all ate a hot dog. I never liked hot dogs much, but I have never had a hot dog quite like this one.