The Prison Music Project Brings Inmates’ Stories to Life in Song

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Folsom Prison was once the setting for an iconic musical performance, when Johnny Cash first played live there in 1968. Now, Folsom inmates are performing their own songs, and telling their stories with help from the Prison Music Project.

The “Long Time Gone” album was released in the summer of 2020, and it represents a collaboration between the Prison Music Project, Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records, musician Zoe Boekbinder, and men incarcerated at the New Folsom Prison facility in California.

“There are two million people in prison in the U.S. and each one of them has a story to tell. Nine of them are on this record,” said DiFranco.

“Long Time Gone” features songs by nine currently or formerly incarcerated songwriters, put together by Boekbinder. She started teaching songwriting workshops and playing concerts at the prison in 2010. After four years of volunteering, Boekbinder started working with inmates on their own songs. After almost ten years of visits, the album was the end result, with DiFranco’s help.

“The 10-year process of this record seemed to play out in slow motion, but it seems only fitting because many of the songwriters here are serving life-without-parole sentences,” a press release said.

Inmates Spoon Jackson, Greg Gadlin, Nathan Jackson Brown, and others worked with the musicians to record songs like Monster, I Can’t Breathe, Long Time Gone, Villain, and All Over Again.

Spoon Jackson has been locked up for more than 40 years for murder, and is serving life without parole. He made friends with DiFranco during the writing process, penning a poem called “Nowhere but Barstow and Prison” that the artist adapted into a song for the album. Jackson has also written a memoir and countless poems.

“Been down sidewinder valley/Been down dead man’s alley/I slipped down b hill/In the heart of town/Been locked up so long/My head spins around,” the track laments.

Boekbinder wasn’t allowed to bring recording equipment into the facility, so professional musicians and a few guests did most of the vocals. But the rap at the end of the track called “Monster” was performed by inmate and songwriter Greg Gadlin over the phone.

“I’m a monster,” sings Gadlin. “You can call me the glorious/Seems I’m stuck here in this game/All I know is this street life and it’s a goddamn shame.” Gadlin has served five years of a 967-year sentence.

Of Jackson and Gadlin, DiFranco said, “Neither of them will ever stop paying for their crimes. What we are trying to focus on with the Prison Music Project is not the crime that anyone committed (because their whole lives are defined by or are an answer to that moment) but on the person beyond the crime and what else they might be or have to offer.”

DiFranco notes that the stories and music on the album are diverse in sound and scope, like the inmates involved in making it. She says that despite differences, “we are united in our humanity and in our hope for a more just justice system. In this time of human versus virus, when so many behind bars are sitting ducks, I hope we can address the reality of mass incarceration and fix it.”

All proceeds from the album will go toward those currently and formerly incarcerated.

Sources: npr.org, rollingstone.com

Originally written for Prison Legal News.

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