Not that you needed the reminder, but the gymnasium floor had its own way of letting you know where you were. Rather than the maple hardwood or vulcanized rubber that one might find in a school or stadium, the basketball court was shellacked concrete. A long, caulked seam ran from baseline to baseline. Its unforgiving nature made me ache at the very thought of taking a charge. And yet, that would be the easiest thing about this place.
The women sit in a circle on metal foldout chairs, all wearing shirts that are some shade of blue. As if to contrast, the staff surrounding them all wear bright red. Members of the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition, mostly male, sit interspersed among the inmates. Everyone has a somber expression, befitting the conversation. Some of them have stickers affixed near their shoulders that read “Hope for LWOP” — life without parole. We are sitting inside the Central California Women’s Facility, the most populated women’s prison in the United States.
Suddenly, there are smiles. Common has the first of them as he walks into the gym. The rapper and actor greets each of the “residents,” the in-house CCWF term for the women serving their sentences here. He is here, on this October day, to perform his third concert in three days for an imprisoned audience, completing his second Hope & Redemption tour in two years. This will be his first show at a women’s institution.
“I feel like these are the people in society who are most unheard,” Common tells Rolling Stone when asked why he performs for the incarcerated. “People who have committed crimes, they naturally get cast out and made to feel like less than human beings. And for me and my experiences of just visiting prisons across the state of California and in Cook County (Illinois), I encountered so many beautiful souls — really enlightened, emotionally intelligent. I was like, ‘Man, the world needs to know that there are people who we are overlooking. They’ve committed crimes, even violent crimes, and we don’t apply forgiveness in a real way.” That mentality, he adds, contributes to the perpetuation of violence.
After the circle widens to accommodate his chair, Common says that he is there to listen, not lecture. “I think that it is important to emphasize that you ladies are not forgotten,” he says, looking at different inmates in the eye as he speaks. “We want to come in and listen to you guys to see how we can help.”
The session bears some fruit, and some old wounds. Karen Honeycutt, in for a drunk-driving crash that killed her only daughter, speaks about the work she did while inside to ensure that no one else made her mistake. Lifer Tammy Garvin speaks of her change.org commutation petition. Rachael Mullenix, who committed her crime at 17 and had served 12 years, emphasizes how significant it would be for the survivors of their crimes to be aware of how they had changed for the better. “Prison has saved me in a lot of different ways,” she says.
After the idea of a podcast — in the vein of San Quentin State Prison’s “Ear Hustle,” which they all know about — is brought up, Warden Janel Espinoza, a popular two-year veteran of CCWF, agrees on the spot to make it happen. The group erupts in joy. As happy as they are to see Common perform, they want to be heard just as loudly.
Niki Martinez, who would be paroled later that month from her 45-to-life sentence, says Common’s visit made her optimistic that their message was getting out. “It is extremely important for the community out there to know that we are human beings, that we committed a horrific crime,” she tells Rolling Stone before the concert in a group interview. “A lot of us are accountable today. And the fact that he’s coming in here and entertaining us gives us a sense of value, and we’re able to ripple that out into our communities.”
Despite what they perceive to be public insensitivity to their humanity, the CCWF inmates illuminate their pain when speaking with Common and the Anti-Recidivism ambassadors. “People don’t understand that we are working hard to get through these traumas,” Honeycutt says. Later, noting the rapper’s “Believe Women” T-shirt, I ask Honeycutt and several others in the room whether being believed when they experienced traumas might have kept them from committing their crimes. To a woman, they all say yes. Monica McCarrick, 36, says that after she was emotionally and sexually abused as a child, she eventually became depressed and turned to drugs and alcohol. “I eventually had a psychotic episode where I killed two people” — her young twin daughters. She is serving life without parole.
“We’re trying to make right, in whatever way we can, for the wrong we’ve done out there,” says Natalie Jaspar, 51, who had been granted parole just the week before and was awaiting release. “We’re not the same people that came in. We are giving back, we are educating. If the public would just know not to pay attention to what they see on TV about prison … once you’re inside, I know these women. They’re dynamic, wonderful women.”
Prison staff tell Rolling Stone that the population had been on its best behavior over the past two weeks so that they could attend. If the 800 or so inmates in the yard are making any special effort to be good, it isn’t discernible. They are all too excited. They just act like regular concert fans, minus the selfies. Even the oldest women in the prison, seated or using walkers, are there and ready.
“Here we go! CCWF!” Common leaps onto the stage, which inmates helped build, backed by a full band. The sun beats down on the crowd. “I’m honored to be with you ladies,” he yells in between verses of “The People.” The crowd of tattooed women scream like Beatles fans, swaying their hands back and forth.
“Talib Kweli performed with us yesterday [at Valley State Prison],” Common tells me after the performance. “And he was like, ‘Man, I didn’t know it would be like this. If you think about it, they don’t have any phones, so they are just present.’ The presence and the joy, the way they value the performance — I just want to be pouring out all I got for them.”
Backup singer Muhsinah belts out Alicia Keys — who Warden Espinoza sheepishly admits the facility requested first — in “You Don’t Know My Name” before she does right by Mary J. Blige’s refrains in the love ballad “Come Close.” Common brings one of the women onstage to rap to her, even kneeling for the proposal that ends the song. Then he comes down from the stage into the mass of women, these prisoners who so many would rather not touch, and embraces them as he performs.
He does 14 songs for them, soaking his gray shirt so dark with sweat that “Believe Women” becomes illegible. Then, after changing clothes and taking a break, he comes out for what his camp says was his first and only encore of the tour, closing out the show with “Be” and Muhsinah singing John Legend’s part in his and Common’s Oscar-winning song “Glory.”
On his tour bus afterward, Common looks like he’d won another prize. “I felt the weight come off them,” he says, catching his breath. “It felt like they could let go and just be free. Every prison we’ve gone to, people have said it was their first concert ever.”
But McCarrick, the lifer, offered an alternative: “I never thought I was going to go to a concert again. And so, this is really giving me a second chance, a feeling of forgiving myself, too, because people out there care about me as a human being.”