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  • Lisa Starbird

Facility Profile: San Quentin State Prison

Got the lockdown blues? Yes, it is a challenging and difficult time for us all with our personal COVID19 lockdowns. I am reminded that there is always someone who is having a harder time than I am and I try to find things to be grateful for. One of those things that I truly believe in is the healing power of music and how music can create memories and shift a mood in an instant. Music can help get us through anything. Did you know that San Quentin State Prison is one of the first facilities that Bread & Roses served and we have been bringing live music into the prison for over 40 years? Yet the nine shows we presented at San Quentin last year make up only one percent of the 653 shows in 2019 for over 32,000 audience members in 123 different facilities. During the time of our founder, the late Mimi Fariña, Bread & Roses presented one show a year at San Quentin for some larger concerts on the yard, bringing in some high profile performers like Boz Scaggs, Eartha Kitt, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo’, Michael Franti, Michael Pritchard, Norton Buffalo and more.

For a few years in the 90s, we also brought entertainment to The House at San Quentin, a program for children of the inmates, which has subsequently closed. This favorite photo of Mimi was taken during one of those visits.

In 2013, Bread & Roses gave me the opportunity to represent the organization as the staff producer working with the intensive and detailed logistics of bringing music into San Quentin. As relationships were developed since that time, our current music programs at San Quentin have expanded from once a year to an average of once a month. We have been involved in guiding the production and providing music for the annual Day of Peace event on the yard as well as the Avon Breast Cancer Walk, and other special events where the men have opportunities to participate and give back. There have been numerous evenings in our monthly inspirational showcases in the prison chapel where we have been able to highlight the inmate bands of talented musicians inside who have been mentored by Bread & Roses volunteer performers. Our mentors and teachers guide the men through initial workshops to collaboration, production and finally arrive at performance opportunities. In this process we are supporting life skills, teaching inmates how to develop their creativity, focus, practice, work together, communicate and how to put on event productions. Workshops leading up to performance opportunities have included songwriting, guitar, harmonica, gospel, a cappella, choir collaboration and more.

Recently we hosted an evening with 15 diverse acts featuring more than 35 inmate performers. In-between acts, I asked questions like “Why is music important to you?” One of the inmates that night responded; “Music brings all of us together. Look around you. There is diversity in this room and we are all smiling. We would never come together like this if it wasn’t for the music.” Another told me, “Music saved my life.” San Quentin staff and administration have also said, “It is always more calm after a Bread & Roses show for both the inmates and the guards.” We also present monthly guest artists from all genres of music including a harpist, didgeridoo sound healer, opera, jazz, soul, R&B, classic rock, gospel, country and a cappella. The men in the audience respond in a way that is appreciative and inquisitive, singing along whenever a familiar song is played. In addition, many of the men have been exposed to music they have never heard before. The volunteer performers that we bring into San Quentin understand that they are there to help support the men’s rehabilitation. They are not there to be recorded or make a video to boost their presence in the music world. It is about the work that we at Bread & Roses do, the work of the heart and making a difference. The ever-present possibility related to planning events in prisons is that there is always a chance of a lock-down. That is disappointing to the performers and the inmates as well as the staff, especially with all of the logistics and paperwork we have to provide. Last year we scheduled 14 shows and we were only able to present nine due to lock-downs. As an event producer, my life has changed since I have been going into San Quentin. I am much more patient, understanding and compassionate. I’ve learned to be in the present moment and how to go with the flow with whatever shows up. I am a better person because of the many experiences that I have had inside. One of the men told me after a show. “You helped me to remember that I am human. That’s what you did. The music makes such a difference. It opens my heart and helps me to heal. It also helps me to remember that I am not just an inmate. I am a man, a father, a son, a brother and I still have feelings, ideas and talents, even after all of these years inside. Thank you for not forgetting us.” Here is one of my favorite personal testimonials: On a night when we did a program with a variety of music, I sang a song called Let it Shine by Karen Drucker. The hook in the chorus is “Let your big, bright, brilliant beam of radiant light shine.” I acknowledged that while there is darkness in the prison, there is also light. I asked the men to sing along with the chorus and to my surprise and delight, over 300 men were on their feet singing that line over and over again. All of these prisoners were smiling, clapping and singing to each other “Let your big bright brilliant beam of radiant light shine!” It was a “highlight life moment”, and something I will always remember. At Mimi’s Celebration of Life at Grace Cathedral in 2001, Joan Baez movingly shared “Mimi filled empty souls with hope and song. She held the aged and forgotten in her light. She reminded prisoners that they were human beings with names and not just numbers.”

I am grateful to be a part of continuing Mimi’s legacy through the powerful work we are doing at San Quentin. I am grateful to be able to make a difference every day in the lives of the men inside. I am grateful for the work that we get to do at Bread & Roses Presents. Mimi’s legacy continues through all of us. Together we are bringing hope and joy through the healing power of music. Thank you to all who contribute your gifts and talents so that we can support those who are isolated and often forgotten.

PS: Our founder, the late Mimi Fariña, was inspired to start Bread & Roses after performing at Sing Sing prison in the early 70s. Click here to view rare video footage of the concert.


By Lisa Starbird, Program Associate/Events Producer

Lisa Starbird truly believes in the healing power of music and making a difference. She has been at Bread & Roses Presents working with logistics, statistics, volunteers and events since 2007. She is also a very active volunteer for numerous organizations sharing her strengths as an event producer, facilitator and teacher. She produces inspiring music and sound healing events, brings together people to share testimonials and facilitates a weeklymen’s peer support group of lifers at San Quentin.

Photo Credits:

1) "Inmate Steve Miller, master of ceremonies Michael Pritchard, Mimi Fariña, Boz Scaggs and inmate Louie Fraga pose backstage after the Show of Stars" in 1983. Photo by Richard McCaffrey

2) Mimi outside of San Quentin State Prison. Photo by Joel Bernstein.

3) Performers for the Day of Peace 2015. Back row (l-r) Jonathan Davis, Nathan Lee, Dave Getz, Tony Saunders, Gail Muldrow, Audrey Auld, Pam Delgado, Jeri Jones, Dave Perron, Mark Hummel & Lisa Starbird. Front row kneeling: Carolyn Gauthier, Francesca Lee, Kurt Huget & Sid Morris.) (Note this photo contains multiple workshop teachers including Dave Getz, Tony Saunders, Audrey Auld, Mark Hummel, Kurt Huget and Lisa Starbird). Photo by Peter Merts.

4) Audrey Auld and Lisa Starbird with San Quentin men. Photo by Peter Merts.

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