Month five of quarantine. Too many have lost a loved one. It’s no longer six degrees of separation.
And yet, we retreat in our homes, and in our communities. We get in the car, or order pick-up or delivery, and tune in to Zoom sessions. Few of us are surrounded, daily, by the raging virus.
For those cramped and caged in correctional and detention facilities, there’s no place to hide, retreat, or get away. Even worse, there’s no escape from coronavirus. Today, ICE reports 4,131 covid-19 positive cases throughout its facilities., 72 at Karnes County Residential Center, where I aided women seeking asylum.
Even worse, coronavirus took over the San Quentin high-security prison. As of August 3, there were about 2,200 infected San Quentin inmates (two-thirds of the population). While 22 died. Those who are “locked up,” for whatever reason, are mostly nameless and faceless neighbors thanks to the NIMBY mentality.
Jai Uttal recognizes the guys at the state prison's names and faces, as well as their melodious voices and tender souls. That’s why the Grammy-nominated kirtan artist released “Behind the Walls.”
Jai Uttal leading kirtan at San Quentin (photo by Wari Om)
“For the last 11 years, I’ve been going semi-regularly to San Quentin, singing with the guys. I saw that these men, who at first seemed so hard, were melting and smiling and singing and expressing so much emotion.”
“Standing outside of San Quentin can be quite intimidating. It took me a while to find my way to be authentic and real with the men; to not see them as ‘other’. But once that happened, I found a community of brothers there who were so incredibly committed to their spiritual practices and to finding inner freedom within the confines of their incarceration. Their dedication and deep spiritual longing were completely inspiring to me.”
For example, one of the inmates told Jai, “We are all brothers here (at San Quentin): The House of Healing.”
What's more, scientific studies confirm that music is healing. Many times, I’ve written about that, and it's in my upcoming book. Psychotherapist Viana Vallejo* says, “Music and movement regulate the central nervous system, and when done with others builds connection, and helps counteract trauma.”
But Jai’s spiritual music can’t heal everything. In May, a facility in Chino, California transferred 120 prisoners to San Quentin. All were over age 65, or with underlying medical conditions. However, they weren’t tested before the transfer. Consequently, it spread like wildfire.
Not surprisingly, the debacle at the oldest prison in California sickened Jai. “What kind of unconscious person decided to send 120 infected persons to San Quentin?” His new track tells the world about covid-19 spreading among the men he knows inside the high-security fences, gates, and doors.
“Everyone is important. Every human being deserves medical attention and care in times of deep crisis. When I heard about the intense covid-19 surge inside the prison, and how little the authorities were doing about it, I was affected very deeply, and personally concerned with the plight of some of my friends there. There’s very minimal medical care. And, the local hospitals are not overjoyed taking in prisoners."
Back in the ’70s, when he sang in prisons while touring with Ram Dass, Jai saw the incarcerated as normal folks that made mistakes. Or, people of color who couldn’t afford the best legal defenses.
Jai hopes his “Behind the Walls,” viewable on YouTube will bring donations to a non-profit co-founded by a former San Quentin inmate. Re:Store Justice aims to heal traumas, find lasting solutions to crime, and build safer, healthier, and more equitable communities.
“We have our local health food store, and our local penitentiary. It’s amazing to me that what’s happening behind those walls is going unnoticed by most of the residents of Northern California,” and beyond.
* In full disclosure, my daughter