Incarcerated artists showcase talents in new series

Incarcerated artists showcase music talents
Justin Smith learned to play guitar while serving his sentence.

Meet Justin Smith, Troubadour of 3A

Artistic expression and the power of rehabilitation are on full display at California State Prison, Corcoran, thanks to a showcase for incarcerated artists.

Recreation Coach Heidi Wippel and TV Specialist Hugh Neely often work together to create and capture positive recreation programs at CSP-Corcoran.

To help inspire others, Wippel proposed focusing on the arts and music. It started with a mural project to beautify the gym, acknowledging the many talented artists at the facility.

Inspired by their talents, a creative culture emerged. The men of 3A Facility, led by Inmate Advisory Council Chairman Knight, focused on the power of rehabilitation and giving back to the community.

Wippel decided to showcase these incarcerated artists through a series of monthly interviews, allowing them the chance to express themselves through art and music.

The first showcase focuses on the talents of incarcerated musician Justin Smith, one of many creative artists at the prison..

He learned to play guitar during his four years of incarceration. In this interview, he shares his songwriting and musical gift with passion as he prepares for his release later this year.

Wippel and Neely have already started filming the next episode featuring the artists and murals of Facility 3A.

Listen to the first episode, Troubadour on 3A.

Coach Wipple interviews incarcerated musical artist Justin Smith

I: So today is our first CSP-Corcoran talent showcase. We wanted to take some time to hear your story and learn a little bit about your music and experiences. Can you please share a little bit about your influences in your music?

JS: My number one influence is my mother. When I was growing up, I used to watch her get on stage and perform and sing and blow people away. I couldn’t fathom how she had so much courage, how she did the thing she did. It was very inspirational and I knew right then that I wanted to be a performer. I wanted to be a singer and nothing would stop me from becoming that.

I: That’s great to have an influence early on in your life. I’m sure that really shaped your experience with music. It probably was something that was just deep down inside of you

JS: Being around the instruments, guitar or piano, drums, hearing other people sing and rap, those things brought me more towards it. But, I would say music videos really inspired me to want to be there to want to do that.

I: Excellent, excellent. So we’re going to fast forward a little bit. During your incarceration you had some experiences with music, can you share with us a little bit about that?

JS: I learned how to play a guitar in four years, I was in a guitar class. There’s a teacher, his name was Henry Robinet, he really taught me a lot of stuff. I didn’t think that guitar could be something that would make me complete as I became, but it has been and he’s a great teacher. All I did was study, I kept going, I kept practicing every day, all day long, six, eight hours a day, kept practicing, kept going. And it really paid off.

I: What is your message to the world and to your community with your music? What is the main message that you have to share with the world?

JS: That no matter your circumstances, you can do anything. It doesn’t matter your surroundings, it doesn’t matter where you are in life. I’m here, people look at prison sometimes as a dark place. It can be, but it is also what you make it. And, if you get in here and really do something with your time and really look forward to doing something with your life, something will click. And to (everyone listening), just keep going, whatever it is that you do, music, movies, you know whatever you do. Writing, acting, sports, you know everybody (has) a purpose. God gave everybody one talent, it’s your choice to utilize it, multiply it and be fruitful for the next person.

I: That’s a great message. So you’ve taken this gift that you have and you’ve really worked on it during your incarceration, through some fortunate circumstances. You’ve had to overcome some things, I’m sure there was difficult times. My question for you is, how do you feel music and the arts effects the culture within the prison setting?

JS: It’s healing. Some people call it universal language, it’s healing. People get something from it, there’s different dramas of music and they say there’s different strokes for different folks. I mean, it’s healing, it’s a spiritual language, a universal language. You can listen to reggaeton [a music style originating in Puerto Rico in the 1990s] and you really don’t know what they’re saying but it sounds so good, you can’t do nothing but dance. That’s the aspect that I get from it. When I record, when I perform, when I give out my music, I hope people get the same aspect I got from it. That they get the same feeling that I get from it when I listen to it.

I: I definitely agree with that, I think it is definitely a language that all people are able to understand, and to speak. One (of the) challenges that we have in the prison setting is the image of violence, the image of mental health. You know, the population struggles with those things that are here. Community, coping, racial tensions, interactions with custody, these are all things that come up as challenges that we face. Can you share a story, or an experience you had, where music has helped you overcome some of those barriers?

JS: I’ve performed a lot in here, when I was sad, when I was angry, when I was happy. Whatever feelings I was feeling. And, I remember at one prison, at night, people would call down the tier. ‘Hey, Radio. Hey, Zo, sing us something, let us hear something’ and I would do it. And, I didn’t expect the reaction I got. I know I’m talented, and that I work hard, but the reaction I got from everybody was like an equal amount, and it was really appreciative for me. So I sung off the tier, about nine o’clock at night, after count, quiet. It was enough. And the whole place from this side all the way around was roaring, everybody was screaming, everybody was clapping. That did something for somebody. It just made me smile. God gave me the talent, and I’m going to utilize it.

I: That’s great, that’s a really good story. I appreciate you sharing that with us. So you have a date, you’re going to get a chance to go home, and one of the things that you’re going, I’m sure, when you leave this place, you have a lot of things that you want to do. Tell me a little bit about your plans when you leave here?

JS: Ultimately, I have daughters. So that is my main focus, to take care of them. But the music won’t stop, that’s going to pave the way for them, that’s going to pave the way for my family. That’s going to pave the way for someone else that’s coming out of here, getting ready to come out of here. That all things is possible, you can do it. Also, prison reform, any way I can help stop recidivism, any way I can help the youth, get into sports, get them into whatever to keep them out of the streets to keep them from getting in trouble, I’m all for it.

I: You have a story that you know is unique. You have a story that is something that average Joe coming in off the street, it will never be as powerful as the story that you have, because you have credibility, because you’ve been through it. You’ve had to get through those dark times. You’ve had to keep pushing forward and so that story with the youth and with the community is going to be very powerful. Because it’s going to give a lot of hope for maybe young kids, who are struggling with maybe some of the same things that you were struggling with

JS: Exactly.

I: So I’m going to transition to a tough topic. So, as you know, you may or may not know, but Suicide Prevention Week is coming up, next week I believe. The week after next week. And one of the things that a lot of individuals who are here struggle with is those thoughts of suicide, how suicide can plant into your head when you feel in those darkest moments, and sometimes in prison people feel that they’re at those darkest moments. Can you share anything, with people who may be struggling with suicide, or maybe a story or an experience with a friend or yourself?

JS: Love yourself. Love yourself enough to know that you matter. You matter to somebody, you know. You were put on this earth for a reason, you do what you need to do and do what’s necessary. But ultimately, suicide is not the way to go, it’s not the way to go out. You want to be on this Earth, it’s a beautiful place, but it’s also what you make it. So I encourage them to just love yourself, love yourself.  Open up a bible, open an astrology book, something interesting to get you imagining higher life. So that’s my message to them.

I: Well, I think I’d love to hear you sing a song.

JS: Alright.

I: You sure?

JS: Yes ma’am.

Related content:

Follow us on YouTubeFacebook and Twitter.