Time in Jail: Well Spent

"Don't break anyone out" he says, "you know, instead of saying 'break a leg.'"

I laughed as I walked out the door though I knew Trever would worry.

That's because I'd never been inside a jail before.  Especially for the sole purpose of entertaining and interacting with detainees.    

"Here we go."  I sighed as I pulled out of the garage. 

Not knowing what to expect, I'd filled my mind with all sorts of scenarios - from harmless heckling to sexual harassment; homemade shanks whittled out of pencils to large anarchist mobs overthrowing the deputies; and, positive reactions to no reactions.  I wondered how the detainees would respond to me and how I would perceive them.  Would they think I was a joke?  Would they hate my music?  Would they be interested in what I had to say or what I wanted to do there?  I sort of assumed the worst - that they would laugh, call me names and I'd never go back. 

Just call me Rudolph.  I was going to the island of misfit toys. 

The closer I got to the jail the louder and more frequent my heart beat.  I took a few deep breathes to slow things down.

"Why am I doing this?"  I wondered.  "Am I just crazy?  What woman, in her right mind, does this sort of thing?   Haven't these people committed (or been accused of) crimes - even violent crimes?  Am I putting myself and my family at risk?  Why jail?  Isn't there somewhere else I can make a difference?"

But then came the assurance that I was going where I was supposed to go.  I was thankful for a growing feeling that everything would be all right.  That the time spent in jail would be good.

I arrived a little early.  I was to meet my contact, Camey, for load-in, at the door nearest the gym.  I decided to check in at the front-desk after waiting a little while with no sign of Camey.  The deputy at the window told me Camey should be there soon and handed me my parking pass, so I went back outside to wait. 

It was a fairly mild day, so I stood outside the van, leaning up against the cold metal parking meter as I watched people milling about the parking lot.  If ever one wanted to find the intersection of every sort of person its there at the county jail/courthouse/city & county offices/police station.  Police officers, sheriff's deputies, state troopers, people on personal business, people waiting in cars, folks dressed for court, county officials, and a guy in a car two spaces from mine chain smoking. 

Nearly twenty minutes had passed since I'd arrived, with no sign of Camey.  I went back inside to check on her status.  I had the brief thought that maybe one of my scenarios was playing out.  Maybe a large anarchist mob was holding everyone hostage inside. 

The front desk staff got a hold of Camey via walkie talkie (though I think they probably have a more official name when used in grown up settings like this) and she said she'd meet me shortly.

Camey finally arrived and we started unloading through the labyrinth of locked doorways and into the gym where I began setting up as quickly as I could. 

"Sorry I was late." Camey said as we worked. "We had an assault, so there will be two less for the concert."  She explained.

"Oh, great." I thought sarcastically. 

"At least it happened before and not during."  I responded, matching her lighthearted attitude about the whole thing. "It was bound to happen sometime since most my gigs this month have required security screenings and are under lock-down.  Oh, and no scarves." 

I can do this, right?

A county employee named Durand, and someone who appeared to be a detainee, came in to the gym and began setting up chairs.  Camey introduced me to the detainee, Travis*.  We shook hands, greeted each other and returned to our work.  I caught a glimpse of Travis as he was setting up.  He could've been anyone I know. In fact, I saw a bit of my brother-in-law, Troy, in him.  Troy passed away in July 2012 after battling pancreatic cancer.  A couple of years prior, Troy had been incarcerated after accusations were made during an ugly divorce.  I am in no position to know if those accusations were true, but I knew Troy well enough to know that he didn't belong in jail.  It gave me a small measure of satisfaction to know I might be performing for someone like Troy.

Just as I was about to check the sound, the detainees started filing in single file.  My heart sort of did a flip-flop.  It was the men.  The men were first.  I was expecting the women first.  Ah well.  Just roll with it.  There's no going back. 

I had never played for an audience of 40 men before let alone an audience of 40 men in jail. 

I started playing "Hold On" and tweaked some of my volume levels.  I'm not sure I was really paying attention to what I was doing.  I was simply doing anything I could to avoid eye contact or allow any awkward silences as the men walked by me to their seats.  

The first unit, dressed in pale green uniforms, sat in the chairs on my left.  A minute or so later the second unit, dressed in dark green uniforms, came in and sat in the chairs to my right.  The short sleeved uniforms showed off a wide variety of body art on most, if not all, the men. A few men wore no expression, while a few goofed around and the rest waited for me to begin.

While continuing to vamp on "Hold On" I introduced myself.  I don't admit to being good at much, but I am good at presenting myself in a confident, self-assured manner even when I'm going crazy on the inside. 

"Hi, my name is Sarah."


I keep vamping.

"Hi boys.  My name is Sarah."  

I give them a second.

"Hi, Sarah."  They respond enthusiastically.   

"I'm hear to play you some music.  Some I've written.  Some I haven't.  Some Christmas.  Some not. I hope you enjoy." 

I started in on the verse. 

Just focus on the words, focus on the words, focus on the words.  Steady now.  Your voice sounds like you're scared to death.  Wait, you are?  Just breathe.  Breathe.  There we go.  That's better.  Breathe.  

After that first tune I jumped straight into the sing-a-long Christmas tunes, 'cause guys in jail want sing-a-longs, right?  "Jingle Bells," "Wonderful Christmastime" and "The Twelve Days of Christmas." 

Yep.  That's right, "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  I have no idea, absolutely none, why I thought "The Twelve Days of Christmas" was a good idea 'cause no one really likes that song.  But, let me tell you, we had AN ABSOLUTE BLAST! 

I started at day five, "Five Gold Rings!" and divided up the remaining days by rows with the twelfth day going to Durand.  Oh my goodness, did they sing!  Well, almost all of them.  One guy in the "seven swans a swimming" row was determined to shout over everyone else, "SEVEN SWANS A-DROWNING," but then the other guys wanted to drown him out (no pun intended), so they kept shouting the proper part and it was as it was. 

I laughed.  They laughed. We had a good time.  I think I can say I'd even grown a little fond of my jailhouse crowd by that point.  Though there were a couple moments when I thought I would never get control of the room back, but they graciously let me do my thing. 

Then, Durand invited me to share some of my story and why I was there.

Ah, yes.  Why I was there.

I talked a little bit about my journey as a singer/songwriter.  That I began writing just a few years ago and have thrown myself into writing, recording and performing.  I shared "Dragonflies" before going into further detail of what I was hoping to do in the coming months.

Some of the men in dark green uniforms.

Some of the men in dark green uniforms.

After "Dragonflies," I shared my vision, explaining that I want to work with one, two, three, or however many, of them in working through their stories in the songwriting process.  That I believe each of them have a story to tell and what they have to say is important.  That what they have been through matters.  Even more so, perhaps telling their story could help someone else struggling in this life.  I have no idea what this will look like in the end, but its worth a try.  They are worth it.

Most faces were looking down, but as I spoke to their value and their worth, their eyes began looking at mine.  I saw them nod their heads.  I felt a sense of empowerment, not for myself, but rather for them, in that moment.   It broke my heart to think that they don't hear these words often enough.  Some, maybe never. 

I moved into speaking about my own life.  In particular, Trever's accident.  I shared his story and sang, "Song for Trever."  I have never, ever performed that song where I could literally hear a pin-drop.  I felt the weight of their full attention and it was powerful.

They didn't want to hear anymore Christmas songs.  They wanted to hear more of my own music.  That meant a lot to me. I was there to encourage them, but ended up feeling encouraged by them.  Who knew I'd find that sort of affirmation in jail?   

Then it was finished and they filed out just as they had come in. A few shook hands with me on the way out.

Durand and a volunteer, a piano teacher who I happened to know from my days at Hamilton Music, came up and spoke with me while we waited for the women to come in.  So awesome to find out she has been teaching piano lessons to detainees.  Just goes to show there are plenty of people doing plenty of good things that we don't know about.   

A few minutes later the female detainees made their way into the gym.

As they filed in, I had the thought that maybe the women would prove a tougher crowd than the men.  There were only nine of them and they were dressed in bright yellow uniforms.  A really awful yellow.  They described themselves as pineapples and gleefully sang the Sponge Bob title song. 

The women in their lovely yellow uniforms.

The women in their lovely yellow uniforms.

I recognized one woman right away.  I had seen her mug shot the night before on the news. It felt strange to be sitting there talking with her when the night before I only saw her as a criminal.  I found myself wondering what had led her to make the decisions she had made.  In speaking with her, in person, I found it harder to dehumanize her.  Which is usually what happens when I think of a person in terms of what they do instead of who they are. 

The girls LOVED "Hold On."  I had to sing it twice.  They said it gave them goose bumps and that I should try out for The Voice.  I laughed at that. 

Just as with the men, we sang some Christmas tunes and I shared my story.  Lots of tears were shed and Kleenexes were passed out. "I'm having feelings today!" one girl declared.  A few of the women were excited to start writing their stories.  We talked about journaling and the had lots of great questions.  Many of these girls could've' been my neighbors or friends.  Maybe I've bitten off more than I can chew!  There are other really great songwriters out there, better than me, that may be more qualified to guide others in this process.  Who knows.  Maybe I'll get them on board, as well. 

I think what I enjoyed most about my time with both the men and women was how, after just a short amount of time, I found myself completely relaxed and able to perform on a much more personal, authentic level.  There was just no pressure - they accepted me just as I was.  I didn't feel like I had to prove anything to them.  I don't think I've ever sung better, and my voice (which is my least favorite part of myself) worked as smooth as butter. 

I had a great time in jail.  The detainees encouraged me just as much as I might have encouraged them.  I'm looking forward to beginning these songwriting workshops, getting to know these men and women, and hearing their stories.

Maybe, in the process, a little hope and love can be found.  

With some of the women and Detention Center Director, Stacy Sinner

With some of the women and Detention Center Director, Stacy Sinner