Image: The MC5’s Wayne Kramer, cofounder of the nonprofit Jail Guitar Doors, jams with a prisoner named Arthur in California. Credit: Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.
In the late 1990s and aughts, David Jassy was an up-and-coming player in hip-hop, R&B and pop who’d had charting hits in his native Sweden and worked successfully as a writer and producer for big-name outside artists. But by the spring of 2010, when Jassy was in his mid-30s, he was a convicted felon, sentenced to 15 years to life for second-degree murder.
After doing time in two facilities, Jassy ended up at San Quentin State Prison (SQ) due to its close proximity to San Francisco’s Swedish consulate. SQ has a reputation as a progressive prison because of its diversity of volunteer-run programs, and by the skin of his teeth, Jassy was allowed to have a simple keyboard mailed to his cell. As he tapped away at the buttons, inmates walked by his cell and rapped to the music. This, he says, led to an epiphany — and a project that reversed his negative course.
“The raps I heard in the tier were mostly glorifying a violent lifestyle,” he tells TIDAL from Sweden, where he returned after California Governor Gavin Newsom commuted his sentence to time served in 2020. “I said, ‘You know what? I’ll produce [my own] mixtape, but instead of using curse words, we’ll just skip that totally and talk about the dangers of the criminal lifestyle and warn young kids about prison. You can even talk about the crime that you did, but don’t do it in a way that you glorify it.”
But San Quentin Mixtapes is not alone. Organizations and initiatives like Jail Guitar Doors, cofounded by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, and the Prison Music Project, whose collection Long Time Gone was produced by singer-songwriters Zoe Boekbinder and Ani DiFranco, echo Jassy’s mission to let people who have become property of the state “tell a human story.”
Jassy’s story includes a tragic, deadly confrontation in 2008 with 55-year-old John Osnes, a jazz pianist, in a Hollywood street. Today Jassy is a free man on parole, and whether he knows it or not, he is part of a long line of prison-music documentarians.
But singing and playing instruments can be much more than a hobby for inmates; it can soothe boredom and psychological pain. What’s more, it can result in a dramatic decrease in violence and recidivism. One 2013 study in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology asserted that having access to relaxing music directly correlated with decreased aggression in inmates.
This extends to handing prisoners pens, paintbrushes or guitars as an avenue to express themselves, and to showcasing prisoners’ work at local functions. “[P]rison arts programs have been found to positively impact inmate behavior,” Larry Brewster, professor emeritus at the University of San Francisco, wrote in a 2014 article titled The Impact of Prison Arts Programs on Inmate Attitudes and Behavior. “These community-based activities serve to help incarcerated men and women demonstrate to themselves and to the public that they are more than a number, or should not be defined solely by the act that brought them to prison.”
While doing time at the Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky — best known as the Narcotic Farm, and for its rehabilitative programs and population of famous addicts — he jammed with trumpeter Red Rodney, who had replaced Miles Davis in Charlie Parker’s quintet. Trapped in a system designed to strip him of his humanity, Kramer felt transported while holding a guitar. “It’s hugely important for human beings to be able to say, ‘This is me. I’m a man. This is my story. This is where I come from,’” he tells TIDAL. “It’s huge in our sense of self.”
DiFranco, a deeply influential alt-folk artist recognized for her social activism, says the Prison Music Project aims to “facilitate creative connection with people, both incarcerated and not.” “Everybody needs an outlet, especially those who suffer and struggle under the greatest weights,” she tells TIDAL. “People in prison suffer very much and need a way to open up and reconnect. Arts, education and therapeutic programs can provide that point of connection. Reconnection is the way that cycles of violence are brought to an end.”
“The very architecture of prisons is designed to strip you of your humanity and your individuality and your story. … You’re a number and a bedspace and a crime,” Kramer says. “And what we’ve discovered is that the creative arts are a great argument against that meaninglessness.” When Jail Guitar Doors puts six-strings and percussion in the hands of inmates who are taught to collaborate on original music, he says, assaults against prison staff and each other plummet. Giving inmates access to music also results in a decrease in recidivism (the chance that a convicted offender will reoffend and return to prison).
This summer, the Prison Music Project released Long Time Gone, an album featuring songwriting and some performances from imprisoned men like the poet Stanley “Spoon” Jackson, who was convicted of murder in the late 1970s and remains in custody at Solano state prison. “Coming from a background of severe childhood abuse and trauma, I was lost with no sense of direction, no sense of responsibility, and no purpose,” Jackson wrote in a 2018 petition to Gov. Newsom. “I wish with all my heart I could have traveled another road instead of the one I did which resulted in such devastation.”
“To address all those get-tough-on-crime people,” Kramer says sharply, “you end up plopping people back out on the street after 10 or 20 years of bitterness and resentment and violence and racism, and return them to the streets and say, [affects naïve tone] ‘OK, we’re going to let you go now. Please rejoin civic life!’ It doesn’t work that way. You have to go to people where they are and reach them where they are.”
Where they are, he asserts, is located in the heart, not solely the brain. “If you educate a criminal, you end up with an educated criminal,” Kramer says. “You have to get onto a deeper level than that. And the only thing that reaches people that deeply is art in all its forms.”
For San Quentin Mixtapes, Vol. 1, Eric “Maserati-E” Abercrombie wrote “Break the Mold” about a minor incident that nearly provoked a full-scale race riot. “It was a white man who had the politics of a Black gang. He ran as a Crip. Due to the whites’ politics, they had to do something about that,” Maserati-E, who was first incarcerated in 2010 and released from SQ in 2019, tells TIDAL. “It was going to be this big, big deal. There were a bunch of people I hadn’t seen ever in that yard come out that were willing to participate in a riot. Looking at that really showed me the power of unity, if you will. It was very unfortunate that we were all willing to come together and unite for something so destructive.”
“We don’t recognize any gang affiliations, neighborhood, class [nor] sexuality,” Kramer says. “We’re not Bloods. We’re not Crips. We’re not homies. We’re not peckerwoods. We’re artists. And we can talk about anyone and anything, but we always have to do it with dignity and respect for each other.”
For prisoners with little-to-no personal autonomy, the feeling of creating something that didn’t exist before is priceless. “I have witnessed joy and the glow of accomplishment touch people in the deepest, darkest places,” DiFranco explains. “I have seen formerly violent, disconnected people become the most wise, gentle and loving amongst us.”
“Psychologically, it definitely challenged me. It made me evolve,” Maserati-E says. “This was a way we could reach the youth — the future, if we will — and allow them to learn from our mistakes. It motivated me to stay on a very progressive path.
“I’ve literally been told by a correctional officer, no exaggeration, that I’m not a human being,” he continues. “I’m an inmate. [But] every time I was in the studio with David Jassy, it was like I was no longer in prison for those 15, 20 minutes to an hour.”
Jassy recalls a moment in which the San Quentin Mixtapes helped forge musical connections between inmates despite fierce differences. “First of all, these are young men, and [secondly] they belong to certain gangs. When they were all gathered in the same room and we were all talking, I could feel that it was tense,” he remembers.
“But as soon as we started playing a different beat, I noticed that some guys wanted to get on the same beat,” he continues. “They were from rival gangs, but the music itself enabled them to do it. They were like, ‘All right, well, I’m in this program now, so we’re just doing it, and it’s kind of like an experiment.’”
When they let their guard down and let the beat take over, the opposing gang members felt rapport. “Everybody was nodding their heads like, ‘Ah, man, this is so hard! I feel this!’” Jassy remembers. “The tone, when everyone was done in there, was pretty light.”