Jailhouse Rock: How "Inmate Idol" got prisoners inspired

Reply Sat 12 May, 2007 05:38 pm
LA Weekly: Jailhouse Rock

This is a positively heartwarming story. It's so cool, it made my day. Echoes of Johnny Cash in Folsom Prison, or Alan Lomax's recordings from Parchman Farm.

It would have been just another day in jail if not for the wild applause. In the yard was a stage, a festive canopy and a 15-foot billboard with a cartoon prisoner in stripes singing into a microphone. Above it, a logo, styled after American Idol, read: "Inmate Idle Singing Con-Test." From behind a hemispheric barricade of chainlink fence and concertina wire, an audience of a thousand screaming inmates and the men with guns who keep them in line watched the host, Bob Hilton, trot out to the stage.

Location: Tent City, in Arizona's Maricopa County, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio reigns with an iron fist, "supervising a large volunteer posse, reviving chain gangs, housing sentenced inmates in tents, and making everyone wear pink underwear beneath old-time black-and-white-striped uniforms". Some people "call Sheriff Joe's myriad jails [..] the Alcatraz of Arizona. And he likes it that way."

Origin: Thelda Williams, the sheriff's programs coordinator, one day thinking, "Hey - Why don't we have a singing contest?" Uncharacteristically, Sheriff Joe assented (though would insist on the mocking title). In stepped Bret Kaiser; detention officer newly working with inmate programs; former front man of '80s heavy metal band Madam X ("glammed-out rockers on the early cusp of hair-metal"); pompadour and sideburns-sporting Elvis impersonator; and DJ at K-JOE, the closed-circuit radio station that broadcasts to Maricopa County's 10,000 inmates.

With co-host Grant Solomon, "a tall, friendly and preternaturally cheerful Mormon missionary whose political idol is Bobby Kennedy," Bret used K-JOE's shows to publicize the jailwide competition:

Hello, everybody out there, have we got something for you. I'm talking about the first-ever Inmate Idle contest. This is a groundbreaking opportunity, never before done in any jail, so don't miss out. We hear you singing all the time in the pods. In your cells. In the holding tanks. Now, let's put you in front of a microphone and on a stage.

Prize: On the jury: part-time local resident Alice Cooper.

It starts out as a bit of a project:

Like a correctional hurdy-gurdy man, Bret spent two weeks straight hauling the karaoke machine from jail to jail and out to Tent City, searching for voices among the cellblocks. [..] He was more than happy to see the tank orders keep piling up, enough so that over the course of the two weeks, the audition panel would hear more than 100 contestants.

Soon, the "making the best of things" kind of fairy tale is not far away:

It may have been a stroke of correctional genius to offer the prize to the winner's entire pod, because as the contest progressed, whole housing units united behind their contestants. Maricopa County jails house 10,000 involuntary residents, a small city of mostly unhappy criminals, often brimming with tension and danger, but with Inmate Idle in full swing, everyone noticed a brighter mood inside the wire. All facilities reported that violence in the yards dropped, as inmates stayed on best behavior so as to not get their pod disqualified. [..] As early as the first auditions, all the inmates were supportive of each other, even if they sang like harpies. "It's cool," they'd say. "You did all right, man." [..]

On YouTube: Inmate John H. Lowery, Jr. impressively nailing Otis Redding's Sitting on the Dock of the Bay - adapting the lyrics to fit his situation

During the contest, broadcast programming normally "limited to C-SPAN, the Weather Channel and the Food Network, the irony of which did not go unnoticed by the inmates" was expanded with the Inmate Idol videos,


Seven thousand inmates voted heading into the finals.

There's as happy an ending as you can get in one of the country's worst jails.


All of this is just a taster. The full story is the size of a New Yorker feature. Better still, the online version is packed with videos, thanks to the YouTube era.

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Reply Sun 13 May, 2007 01:01 pm
Nice post nimh. Great story, I love it.
John is a good singer.
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Reply Tue 15 May, 2007 06:53 am
Thanks. Glad you liked it..

(and "bump")
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