Carmen George

Music at Chowchilla prison brings hope for redemption

'Loudest charity on earth' brings hope and dignity to prison inmates

Jail Guitar Doors donates instruments and performs during visit at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla
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Jail Guitar Doors donates instruments and performs during visit at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla

As inmates fill up an auditorium at Valley State Prison in Chowchilla, the lead singer of a Los Angeles band announces, “I came to donate some drums!”

Hearing this good news from Cody Marks, Henry Ortiz of inmate band Fuego Latino clasps his hands together and brings them to his chest, as if to pray this is real: “Really!? Seriously!?”

Ortiz brought a gift of his own – roses, made of paper by another inmate down his hall. They’re intricate and beautiful, and sit in a sturdy vase of paper and purple cellophane. Marks loves them.

Nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors, which sponsors concerts in prisons, made it possible for Marks, Ortiz and other free and imprisoned musicians to jam together on Saturday for an audience of around 200 inmates.

She comes here and just injects the whole prison with hope, with music and life and the idea that redemption is possible.

Inmate Daniel Henson

The Cody Marks Band first visited the Chowchilla men’s prison last year. Marks greets inmates like old friends before Saturday’s concert.

“What are they feeding you in here!?” she asks. “You look good!”

“It’s the best food you’ve ever eaten,” replies inmate Daniel Henson with a playful smile. He pinches his thumb and forefinger together in a sign of satisfaction, then adds, “We’ve sustained ourselves on your music.”

Marks tells Henson and Ortiz the set list, which includes the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Then, she teases: “We’re not doing ‘Free Bird.’ 

Music is healing. The sounds are indicative of life, of creativity, of expression, and I fully believe that a lot of music is born out of pain and out of that period where people are transforming and changing themselves.

Inmate Daniel Henson

The music comes without preaching. Jef Scott, Marks’ writing partner and band leader, says his message is pretty simple: “How are you doing?”

“That means a lot,” Scott says, “because someone is actually talking to you instead of talking at you.”

Jail Guitar Doors also donated 12 guitars to the prison. They will be put to good use by inmates such as Ortiz, who learned to play guitar in prison.

“I believe that in order for us to heal, in order for us to grow, in order for us to overcome addictions, we have to have healthy outlets, because a lot of us are here because we didn’t know how to express our suppressed emotions,” Ortiz says. “Through music, through poetry, through art, you can come out with some phenomenal stuff when you tap into your spiritual nature.”

Valley State Prison offers inmates the opportunity to participate in many activities along those lines. The wide range of activities include three inmate bands, art “recovery and therapy,” a dog training program, and a public speaking club.

We have to keep in mind that these guys are going to be our next-door neighbors someday

Lt. Ron Ladd

Lt. Ron Ladd says if people have a lot of idle time “there’s a greater chance of that time not being used productively, and maybe for negative activities.

“Incarceration is their punishment – we’re not here to punish them,” Ladd says. “This helps fill idle time. It’s positive, and we have to keep in mind that these guys are going to be our next-door neighbors someday.”

The 35-year-old Ortiz expects to be released from prison within 13 months. He’s been incarcerated since he was 18.

“I’ve been conditioning myself all these years,” Ortiz says. “The life you want to live out there starts in here. How you live in here is how you’re going to live out there.”

I’ve been practicing living how I want to be out there.

Inmate Henry Ortiz

He talks with pride about money inmates raise and donate to help local organizations, including a program through Fresno Barrios Unidos that helps young pregnant mothers and teens affected by domestic abuse.

“That kind of hit home for us,” Ortiz says, “because a lot of us grew up like that.”

Scott says he’s against violence and crime, but has empathy for abuse some inmates experienced as children that may have contributed to their decisions to commit crimes later. That understanding fuels his performances in hopes of helping people change for the better.

A prisoner once told him this horrifying story: “I’m a 5-year-old kid watching my mom get her brains beat out from my dad, and she’s asking for my help, and I’m just a 5-year-old kid.”

“That’s when they learn to fear rules,” Scott says.

Henson was sentenced to 176 years-to life for killing four family members when he was 16.

“It was a terrible horrible tragedy, absolute nightmare,” Henson says. “I was in the darkest place and I never imagined I’d live to be 18. It was the most horrific emotional state that spilled over onto those that did not deserve it or never had that coming in a million years. I am light years from that teenager today.”

By the grace of God and a lot of good people, I’ve survived … and it’s only through music, through guests that come in, through events that inspire me and tell me that change is possible.

Inmate Daniel Henson

In prison, Henson founded a group called MAGIC – which stands for “maturity plus accountability plus growth plus inspiration equals change” – to counsel young offenders.

“I’m doing my part to try and rehabilitate other men in prison, to send citizens into society instead of criminals. … I’m doing what I can. I’m doing everything I can.”

Groups like Jail Guitar Doors encourage him to continue this good work.

“Without society embracing the concept of rehabilitation, embracing the concept of change, it’s pointless,” Hensen says, adding that he believes all human beings have “intrinsic value, meaning and worth.

“And we all have the propensity to make those mistakes, to have a drink, get in a car, hit and kill somebody, or unfortunately things of that nature. But I believe that people can come back from that – that given time, and given emotional nutrients and the ability to change and grow, I believe that definitely you can overcome those things.”

Music made up the emotional nutrients that changed him.

“Instead of going to something destructive, instead of harming or hurting others, you can channel that energy and that pain into music or something else productive and creative – into poetry, into the arts – so that you yourself are healed through the music and others who listen to it are entertained or healed or inspired to play a bigger role in society – inspired to change and transform their own life, inspired to do things, to be more than what we were.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge