From 1998 through 2003, I worked as a freelance tech with Capital AV. Their primary client I worked for was Prison Fellowship and the OSL-Operation Starting Line program. We worked shows inside prisons for the inmates. We also did fundraisers and other events for them. It was one of the best experiences of my life.
Note: These are the same people who run the Angel Tree Christmas Program. They arrange for Christmas presents to be delivered to the children of inmates. A very important ministry.
I know it sounds weird when folks hear that we were doing concerts and shows inside prisons, but we did. By my estimate, I worked about 350 shows, in different facilities, over that five year stretch. Every single one had specific challenges from getting through security to setup to load out. Some went as smooth as any other small show, some were incredibly challenging. Very few incidents over all that time. Only rained out twice in all those shows, both of them still got part it. Only shut down for security reasons once.
Since most of my audience is from the church side of production, I thought you might like to hear more about the prison ministry. If you have ever considered it, I can promise that it is one of the most rewarding ministries out there. If anyone needs encouragement and direction, it’s the inmates. Techs get ministry opportunities that other volunteers never have.
My introduction to Prison Fellowship came through Larry Howard who is still very active in prison ministry. Larry coordinated a live album titled, “Live at Broad River Prison.” Which was actually recorded in 1998, inside Broad River Correctional facility in South Carolina. It features Steven Curtis Chapman, Reverend Dan Willis, Rick Cua, Kathy Triccoli, Peter Penrose and plenty more amazing performers. Easily one of the coolest projects I ever worked on.
Several years later, we went to Angola in Louisiana. We spent eight days onsite, recording another album. This one was actually the inmates from several different prisons. The album was titled, “Loose These Chains” and was used to raise money for the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation. We found an assortment of talented performers in there. It was an amazing experience. We spent some time with Warden Burl Cain while there. He is a legendary warden and highly respected. Absolutely life changing.
During all that time, I was in a unique position as the audio tech. The performers and volunteers were ushered in as a group and I was rarely part of that. Normally, I went in through the Sally port gates an hour or two earlier that them. I was in direct contact with the officers and inmates for several hours longer that the rest of our group. It enabled me to spend more time with them and actually have conversations that I never got as a volunteer. These inmates became my crew for the day.
I heard more stories of how they ended up there, things they regretted, things they hoped to change. I heard honest change as well as some deep doo doo. Some were legitimately trying to put their life back together and do better. Some were still convinced that they could BS their way through life. Even in the midst of incarceration, some still refused to admit they didn’t know it all. The hardness of the human head is unbelievable.
One of the funniest moment in all that time, was a younger inmate trying to tell me his story. He was in for robbery. He had been arrested for stealing something and got busted. He was determined to convince me that it was for legitimate reasons. He needed the money for his family. That story tied into his story of how he spent his time making music and hanging out in clubs. I told him he should have spent that time working to earn his money, instead of stealing it from someone who did.
He didn’t like my opinion and wandered off to tell the story to someone else. He picked Larry, who was about ten feet away. About two minutes into his pitch, Larry interrupts him to explain that his crime was not justified. He needed to get his head on straight and work, not steal, to provide for his family. Again, he wanders off for someone else to milk sympathy from. Classic knucklehead.
The hardest facilities, for me, we’re the women’s prisons. Almost all of them are mothers. Some of them never see their kids or grand kids. The detachment from their families always seemed so much harder for the women. Leaving the men was like most other gigs, handshakes and general friendly goodbyes. The ladies were always more emotional. The sense that we were leaving to go back home seemed to hit them as we went out the gates. I never got used to the sound of those gates closing behind me.
I spent some time as a volunteer with Bill Glass, too. Just a volunteer, and only a couple of events. Their work is pretty amazing. Those folks have a strong heart for the inmates. It was a good experience, but I never got the one on one time like when I was the tech. Coming in with a group has a powerful effect, but coming in alone is something completely different.
I have been thinking about our work as techs. We do the Quasimodo thing and work in the shadows most of the time. We don’t get much direct interaction with our audience, compared to time with the people onstage or the other techs. That time together is often hectic and stressful. It’s also very influential. Some of my closest friendships were developed in the crunch time of production. It’s a time when your character tends to come out whether you like it or not.
I still have a hand made plaque from a young man I mentored into production. We became good friends during that time. I have watched him, and several others, go on to very productive and successful ventures. Many of them have thanked me for taking the time with them. I am very proud of those guys and all they do.
No big moral to this story. No “in your face” message here. Just pointing out another side of the work. The part where you get to be an influence on others. When you get to have an impact on someone’s life. My time with the inmates was probably more influential on me than it was on them. It was a great experience. I miss all that more than any other time in my career.
Take some time to click through those links up there. Visit my friends and see the work they do. Maybe order a CD, maybe jump in and support one of the ministries. They are all good people that I gladly endorse.