Henry Robinett On Teaching Inmates To Play The Guitar
In 1993 jazz musician Henry Robinett received a call asking if he was interested in teaching guitar to prison inmates. At the time his band, the Henry Robinett Group, had just released their second CD, and he had recently launched his own label, Nefertiti Records, but he was mostly a stay-at-home dad in Sacramento, California. He said yes because he needed the money and also because he was curious. He’d never been inside a prison.
Robinett began teaching twenty miles from Sacramento at the old Folsom State Prison, which had been built in the nineteenth century. The atmosphere was “intimidating,” he says, but the inmates were appreciative and put his mind at ease. He found that these men were not nearly as threatening and irredeemable as TV and movies had led him to believe. Since then, he’s taught off and on at numerous California prisons, including California State Prison, Sacramento — also known as the “new Folsom.”
Born in 1956, Robinett grew up in Sacramento. His father had a master’s in mathematics and business administration prior to World War II, and had been an instructor at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama during the war. In 1964 Robinett’s mother, a social worker, took him with her to London, where they lived for a year and he was exposed to European culture, including the early days of the musical phenomenon known as the British Invasion. Back home in Sacramento, at the age of thirteen, he started playing guitar after hearing rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix’s version of the Bob Dylan song “All along the Watchtower.”
In his teens and early twenties Robinett played in a funk band and an R & B/Brazilian-jazz group. With each project he moved more toward jazz, inspired in part by the music of bassist and composer Charles Mingus, his father’s first cousin. After Robinett met Mingus in 1978, he wrote the jazz composer, saying that he dreamed of coming to live with him in New York City. Mingus called him and said, “Well, come on.” At the time Mingus was writing music for an album by singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, and Robinett met her and many legendary jazz musicians during his three-month stay.
Robinett played briefly with the rock band Bourgeois Tagg in the 1980s before forming the Henry Robinett Group, which has released five albums, most recently I Have Known Mountains. In addition to his work in prisons, which is funded through the William James Association, he has taught at American River College, Cosumnes River College, and the University of the Pacific.
When we met for this interview, Robinett let me sit in on three of his classes at a state prison called the Sierra Conservation Center. He had a friendly rapport with his students, joking and nagging them about their homework. At one point he said that he’d never planned for teaching inmates to become his life’s work, but it turns out it is. He laughed, and his students did, too. Afterward one man told me the hour he spent in Robinett’s class every week was the only time he felt like a human being.
Carnes: Before you began teaching guitar at California’s Folsom State Prison in 1993, did you have any experience with prisons?
Robinett: No, this was a completely new world to me. I’d never even thought about it. I was hesitant at first. I’d taught guitar at a high school, and I’d had private students, so I wasn’t nervous about teaching. No, it was the environment. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know who these guys were. I guess I thought they were bad people, and I think the media had a lot to do with that expectation.
My first class at Folsom Prison was in the hanging room. This was where they would hang people a hundred years ago. Being in that room filled me with an eerie sense of history, as if there were ghosts in the granite. The inmates were aware of it, too.
Carnes: What happened to change your perspective on the inmates?
Robinett: Most of them seemed just like you and me. There were a couple of scary incidents, but I didn’t have the feeling I would be harmed. I quickly overcame my fear, and I think that served me well as a teacher, because people can sense if you’re intimidated by them, or if you think they’re scum. It isn’t my job to judge these men. I treat the prisoners the same way I treat any other student — except I can’t give them a ride home after class. [Laughs.]
Carnes: How has this experience changed your view of prison?
Robinett: I think our system of incarceration is inhumane. These guys are allowed almost no dignity. As far as I’m concerned, their sentence is their punishment. They aren’t supposed to be treated cruelly on top of that. They have rights. Sure, they gave up some rights when they committed a crime, but not all.