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Cellblock cues: On the inside, prison music, and theater programs have positive powers

Tuesday, October 02, 2001

By Tim Menees, Post-Gazette Editorial Cartoonist

Post-Gazette cartoonist Tim Menees spent several days inside penitentiaries in Pennsylvania, California and New York, three states that provide arts programs for their inmates. In this week's Sunday Magazine, Menees focused on prisoners' art and writing. Today, he brings us music and theater.


This is a tough room.

"The men are calmer. Music keeps their minds on positive things and has its own rewards," says Mark Ehnot of his music program at SCI Graterford. (Illustrations by Tim Menees, Post-Gazette)

Some 500 inmates at the State Correctional Institution Graterford have filed into the darkened, cavernous auditorium at the Montgomery County penitentiary, northwest of Philadelphia, for an evening concert by one of the prison's bands. Some talk, some whistle and yell to each other, some sit motionless.

"We're Phoenix, an up-and-coming band!" Joseph Bowie calls from the risers, and Phoenix presses ahead with percussion and a horn section. A mix of R&B and funky jazz blasts out of speakers hanging from the ceiling beams and stacked on the risers. The audience begins to come around.'

Bowie, in T-shirt and shades, is having a ball. He sings, laughs, plays the trumpet, works the crowd -- "We're gonna slow this one down for all the brothers!" -- and could be doing a club gig. Instead, he faces a sea of men in brown, backlit by small lights at the rear of the auditorium. At 8 o'clock, the lights come up. What spell, if any, is broken, and while Phoenix winds up, the men head for the cellblocks.

Bowie is 44 and has been inside 23 years. Some members of Phoenix are grousing about their mistakes, but he seems almost euphoric, and before he heads down the main corridor, which feels like a high school after a band concert, he explains: "I traded a pistol for a trumpet."

Lt. Tom Shockley, at the California State Prison Solano, says of the state's Arts in Corrections program: "It's a positive outlet, a positive use of time. There are some talented people in there. They've failed as criminals, so they'd better find another line of work."

And Fred Ruffo, assistant to the superintendent at SCI Mercer, says while cable television is the best baby sitter, "everyone needs an outlet, something to better themselves, something to take back to the streets."

Cliff Parris, who has built up Pennsylvania's prison arts program since the mid-'80s, says, "Art is a positive activity, something the inmates can carry back to the streets." Thanks to Parris, a former CO who is now activities coordinator for the state's Department of Corrections, there are arts programs in every state prison. He says that even if inmates land menial jobs on the outside, "at night they can be a poet or an artist -- just like you and me."

The Ranch is a former dairy farm just down hill from the walls of San Quentin, a collection of small buildings with a picnic area, a view of the hills and no fences. It is home to the prison's short-timers. Inside a small gray room, several musicians are standing or sitting among Peavey speakers, jamming on "Stormy Monday." Instructor Aida DeArteaga grabs a bass guitar and jumps in. Carolyn Brandy starts playing the congas.

 
 

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DeArteaga is a musician and San Quentin's arts facilitator. She hires outside teachers like Brandy, who teaches an Afro-Cuban percussion style called son clave. DeArteaga, dressed in a sweater and slacks, has dark hair and a ton of energy. Her office, just inside San Quentin's East Gate, is filled with pictures, guitars, a computer, videos, a wooden cupboard and an aquarium. An inmate clerk sitting outside her office is from West Virginia and grew up delivering the Sunday Pittsburgh Press. He's just appeared in the prison's performance of "Waiting for Godot," directed by Jan Johnson, a friend of Ingmar Bergman. There is a waiting list of volunteers itching to list San Quentin on their resumes.

Meanwhile, back at the Ranch, eight guys are playing "Baby, What You Want Me to Do?" Outside, Robbie is grabbing some rays. He's buffed up, has short hair, cutoffs and sneakers and looks as if he belongs at Cal Berkeley. He's 32 and a carpenter who, after DeArteaga got him a guitar, learned to play. He may try college some day -- he's due to be released shortly -- but right now he must study at San Quentin, busted for heroin.

Across the road comes the crackling from the prison's firing range.

Prisoners in the yard move aside when they see them coming. Dead men walking. Correctional officers -- COs -- bring inmates dressed in the dark blue jumpsuit of death row past the arts room on their way to a medical checkup.

In the early evening chill, a blue alarm light starts to flash. DeArteaga halts, and the prisoners drop to the ground. Another false alarm. Inside the arts room, the musicians are setting up, blowing on trumpets, banging on conga drums.

At SCI Albion, near Erie, an inmate offers his rendition of Marvin Gayes's "What's Going On."

An inmate bass player is learning a riff from a civilian teacher, Ben Heveron, who doubles on keys. Brandy is working with another. The trumpet players gradually get in sync, and they start on a Latin song, "The King." Heveron stops them frequently -- "When the conga drum solos, everybody stops" -- but finally they get cooking. Outside, evening has arrived and the lights inside North Block glow dimly through the bars.

As the writers leave the classroom, the ochre cellblocks are lit against the night sky. Other prisoners wait in the cold to go inside. AIC, says DeArteaga, gives "a sense of community. An intellectual community."

The music room at SCI Albion, near Erie, has black soundproofing foam that looks like egg cartons. A group of musicians start some funk, with two kids in stocking caps tossing in rap: "I'm lost right now, I can't find my way ..." The bass, keys and drums come in underneath. "Two little boys I love so much ..."

The singer stares at the wall. The song is "Sometimes I Cry." One of the rappers says, "We're thinking about bad stuff we've done, and giving that up for our kids."

The band, a mix of black and white inmates, next plays "East River Drive" by Grover Washington. A prisoner in a yellow kufi sings Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On."

"We have a moral respect," one African-American inmate says. "We only care if you're a good musician."

Prisoners ask to transfer to SCI Graterford to get into Mark Ehnot's music program. Ehnot is easy-going, tall with dark hair. He runs his program and plays in two prison groups, the Big Band and Small Band. Such programs were suspended after a 1995 raid. Smuggled contraband led to a spate of violence and drug overdoses at Graterford, and the state moved in.

Ehnot reorganized the Big Band as a class. He tries to reach every student, and music can be therapeutic. "The men are calmer," he says. "Music keeps their minds on positive things and has its own rewards. They can play something they never did before."

A red light in the back of the auditorium goes off. The noon count's clear, and Ehnot leaves to collect his afternoon students. A TV screen is playing a gripping video, "Prison Dialogues," filmed by two Graterford inmates and aimed at young tough wannabes. It is a finalist at a Philadelphia film festival.

On the stage, another prison band, Platinum, is rehearsing for a Sunday show. Some band members take off their brown shirts in the afternoon heat, and the lead singer does a mock intro.

Ehnot makes his rounds. Off the rear corner of the auditorium, four guys are singing in the john. Two more play sax and trumpet near the seats. A trombone player practices whole- and half-notes, and Phoenix's Joseph Bowie practices arpeggios on the vibes. By one wall, a guitar player and a sax man bone up for a concert in the yard. In a small storage room behind the stage, two kids watch Kelvin, a sad-eyed young man with curly hair and a thin beard, program a 16-track sequencer. The machine cranks out music and rhythm for Greg, who wears his brown pants low, gangsta-style, and sings a ballad he wrote, titled "Can You Feel?" He looks 21; he's 31.

Skee Whip, Folsom State Prison's Jimi Hendrix, thumps away the blues in the second floor music room.

At 3 o'clock, Ehnot shouts, "Let's go!" Platinum finishes up a song, others finish up their conversation.

Kelvin figures the parole board always asks if prisoners have been rehabilitated. So instead of sitting in their cells, they get involved to show they are doing something constructive.

He asks, "What are we supposed to do?"

The classroom could be in any college -- rows of chairs with armrests and two TVs with VCRs. Four students and the teacher wait for the others, but tonight's class will be thin. This is Ice Cream Night at SCI Albion. Inmates have special-ordered ice cream -- the proceeds going to outside groups -- and are picking up their treats.

James Snyder, their teacher, looks like a thinner Rob Reiner: bald, trim gray beard, boyish face, wearing a sweater and slacks. He has us come to the front of the room, where inmates stand in a circle for "Pass the Energy," a theater exercise to loosen up. Then they chant. "Maaaaa" -- louder when Snyder raises his hands, softer when he lowers them. "MaaaAAAAAaaaAAAAAaaaa."

The prisoners start practicing their short readings, many from a small book titled "Best Men's Stage Dialogues." They have a performance coming up, and no one has his reading memorized. A couple are close but hold their scripts, still "on book."

Outside teachers come into San Quentin to teach inmates in such areas as Afro-Cuban percussion style called son clave.

An inmate thespian starts, but Snyder jumps in. "Who are you talking to?" They work on motions. Albion's PA interrupts: "Move time for AA. Move time for AA."

Snyder has a reader walk in bigger circles. "Use the stage." He shows him how to defend against blows. Has he ever watched boxing? The inmate replies: "I have boxed." JuaVonnie, another inmate, sits in the back and whispers his lines to himself, then takes center stage. He has trouble with a comedy scene that involves taking off pantyhose. Then he tries "Come on, Dad," a serious piece, and he's much better, but he'd rather do comedy. The AC hums. Outside the rain-splattered windows, the day is fading. Snyder scribbles notes on a large yellow pad.

"Move the yard!" The PA blares again. "Move the yard!"

Then comes Damon Carter, a handsome kid with a stand-up-comic wit. He has his start nailed: "I got a lot of hate in me ..." The PA blares again. He checks his script, closes his eyes. The line is about a "burning seething lusciousness." He owns the stage. Snyder says, "You did some great transitions but this 'lusciousness' business. So you don't get me in trouble, what are you thinking of?" Snyder warns him: No blatant sexual motions.

Carter is a natural and reads with flair. Acting is what he wants to try when he gets out. "I can start with regional theater," he says. "They always need people."

Acting is a safe way to act out violence and emotions. "It's a better addiction," Snyder says.

A dozen prisoners at the State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh grab their assignments.

"Yo," shouts Brian Kremer. "Leave tables where they're at!" A bulked-up inmate wearing dreadlocks and a weightlifter's belt wrapped with duct tape looks at his paper and laughs. He's the director for today's pretend shoot -- a 60-second spot for a Dodge minivan -- using Western Pen's video gear, a pretend dolly and brooms for boom mikes.

Kremer sits on a table in the middle of the auditorium, swinging his legs. He yells, "Who's my location scout?" An inmate raises his hand. "Where's the property manager? Where's my wrangler?"

Kremer is 34, slightly built with pale blue eyes, short beard and a couple of tattoos, energetic, but not readily amused. He grew up on Mount Washington and says he has an electrical engineering degree. He is an inmate tutor and has created the class while also running the prison's video news program and the in-house education channel. The class is geared to videography -- weddings, birthdays -- which his 15 students might do when they are released.

The State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh offers inmates a class geared to videography.

Student inmates need a "C" to get a certificate, and Kremer doesn't pass everyone. He puts it in writing. "The last time I just told them, and I got grief." On the outside, teachers face angry parents, but he has students "who have already killed somebody."

The Thursday class starts at 10 a.m. and runs until 11:30. Inmates have half an hour to prepare the shoot. Kremer tells the producer, "You're looking out for our money. We have $750,000 in production costs."

The producer shouts, "Who's got the locations?" and heads over to a knot of men. Six chairs represent the minivan. By the time they're set up, it's 10:55 am. The director is thinking out loud in a deep voice: "Over here's safety seat -- then Mom and Dad come in." The other inmates are paying close attention. This is very practical stuff.

Kremer: "Use a slow pace, and the close-up makes the van look really big."

Director: "I need you as Dad, you as Mom."

Sound Man: "So I gotta make the sound of a door closing -- baboom?"

Kremer: "No, that's edited in, in post-production."

A prisoner approaches Kremer with a question; he'd missed last week's class. Kremer tells another inmate, "Always push the dolly, otherwise you lose stability."

Kremer (yelling): "Where's my producer at? You're costing me money!"

Philly Convict (yelling): "Everyone take their places!"

Second Convict (shouting): "Who are you? You ain't nobody!"

Producer (to director): "I'm letting you know we've got a low budget."

Director: "Quiet on the set! Family, get ready! Action!"

The family walks up to the van, opens the door, Dad gets in, the kids mess around. Mom shuts the rear hatch. They sit for a few seconds.

Family Member: "Now what?"

Director: "Cut!"

Discussion. The family sits in the van. They will reshoot the scene.

A prisoner operates a pretend second camera. Others hold their broomsticks, pretending.

At 11:25 the very real bell clangs. It's chow time. As the inmates gather by the rear door, Kremer says, "Where's my producer?"

A prisoner says, "He took my money and left."

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