Jailhouse Rock 

Singing for supper in the Alcatraz of Arizona

Wednesday, May 2 2007

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. A longtime Hollywood announcer — “From NBC’s Let’s Make a Deal, the voice of many of the game shows you’ve seen on TV!” — Bob greeted the jail yard like he was on a soundstage in Burbank. “Good afternoon. Oh my gosh, boy, we are set for a wonderful show here!”

Katrina Duhart and other finalists in the "Inmate Idle Singing Con-Test"(Photos bu Joshuah Bearman)

click to flip through (6) Bret Kaiser, detention officer, Elvis impersonator, Idle coach and judge, and former member of the band Madam X
  • Bret Kaiser, detention officer, Elvis impersonator, Idle coach and judge, and former member of the band Madam X

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All this would make an unusual sight in any corrections facility, but especially so at Tent City, in Arizona’s Maricopa County, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio makes sure county time is no picnic. The papers call him “Crazy Joe,” and his staff calls him Sheriff Joe, but Joe likes to call himself “the toughest sheriff in America.” Vast, burgeoning Phoenix is in Maricopa County, and since 1992, Sheriff Joe has run the country’s fourth largest jail system with an iron and often eccentric hand, 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 — Fourth Avenue, Lower Buckeye, Estrella and Tent City — the Alcatraz of Arizona. And he likes it that way. Competitive singing came to this desert Alcatraz when “a bolt from the blue” hit Thelda Williams, the sheriff’s programs coordinator, in her office one day. “Hey,” she thought. “Why don’t we have a singing contest?” Sheriff Joe was reluctant at first, but he’d met Paula Abdul a few years earlier, and when country singer Glen Campbell spent 10 days in Sheriff Joe’s jails on a DUI in the summer of 2004, Joe let him give a concert. “You know what?” he said. “Maybe a little melody will boost morale around here. Let’s give it a try.” Bret Kaiser, a detention officer who’d recently started working with inmate programs, was excited about the contest. Having been a heavy metal front man himself in the ’80s, Bret has always loved performance and music. He’d been happy to bring that to his 9-to-5 since he started working at K-JOE, the closed-circuit radio station that broadcasts to Maricopa County’s 10,000 inmates each day. With co-host Grant Solomon, Bret started using breaks between K-JOE’s educational shows and its “Americana” collection of classics and crooners 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. Bret had done the artwork for his band’s fliers back in the club days, so he drew up an Inmate Idle poster that went up in the jail’s housing units, or pods. There would be a celebrity judge, the inmates learned. And a prize was announced: decent chow for a night for the winner and the rest of his pod — no small reward under the regime of Sheriff Joe, who prides himself on having whittled down the meal costs to 15 cents per prisoner per day, a fraction of what gets spent on the dogs in the K-9 unit. After three daily meals of donated bulk food with no condiments, salt or pepper, the promise of burgers and pizza from the outside was the next best thing to freedom. The programs department bought a karaoke collection and edited out the touchier tunes with sexual or violent themes, leaving 100 song choices, which appeared on a handout next to the poster in each pod. There was a stack of pink paper for Inmate Request Forms, or tank orders. Inmates usually use tank orders to communicate about anything within the bounds of inmate privileges, like a visitation or a doctor’s appointment or court dates. But with Inmate Idle under way, they started filling up with song requests.

Showtime getting underway and the MC announcing the judges

Auditions began at Fourth Avenue Jail, the new facility in downtown Phoenix, in one of the chapels — a bare room, some school desks, and Thelda’s grandkids’ karaoke machine set up facing the panel: Bret, Thelda, and various other lieutenants and commanders. The contenders waited their turn in school chairs around the room. Not all the auditions went smoothly. Some inmates had never seen a karaoke machine before. They’d jump in too soon, or look away and lose track. People sang out of key, couldn’t hold notes. Several sounded like they hadn’t yet sobered up from whatever binge had brought them there. A few did a kind of improvisational spoken-word monotone, reading words of songs they didn’t know off the screen, and the panel would cut them off. “Man, I should write you up for singing so bad,” Bret would say, playing a jailhouse Simon Cowell. “What are you in here for? Because you’re murdering that song.” Then came John H. Lowery Jr., nonviolent recidivist and sharp tenor. He’d always been a singer, once performing at a talent show during halftime at a Denver Broncos–Arizona Cardinals game back in the day. But that was a long time ago, before he started running with the wrong crowd. Now, in front of six detention officers, John sang cold, with no practice, but his rendition of Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” had everyone on the panel nodding and taking notes. Gary Fisher was another surprise. Barrel-chested and still wearing a mane of long hair, since he had not yet been sentenced for what he called “drinking in the wrong county” but what that county’s Superior Court had labeled an Aggravated DUI for blowing a 1.98, Gary was facing a decent stay with Sheriff Joe. But he was confident approaching the microphone, and when he started, Bret and the others could see why: Projecting straight from the gut, Gary nailed Garth Brooks’ “I Got Friends in Low Places,” a favorite from back home in Tennessee and, Bret thought, an appropriate number for Gary’s new home. After that first session, word spread that Inmate Idle was legit, and soon there were more tank orders. 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. That suited Bret just fine. In 1982, he’d teased his hair, donned a cheetah-print vest and lace-up tight jeans, and joined Madam X, a young group of glammed-out rockers on the early cusp of hair-metal. Two of their members were women, sisters Roxy and Maxine Petrucci; Roxy went on to join the chick-metal pioneers Vixen. Fueled by a gold record, a recording contract and a couple of videos on MTV — “High in High School” revolves around a seemingly stoned midget being disciplined by his foxy teacher and at one point features a remarkably hirsute Bret materializing from a taxidermied cat — Madam X had what Bret calls “a nice little run.” But as he tells it, greed, mismanagement, Tipper Gore, and some ill-advised intraband romance gone sour led to Madam X’s demise. Bret was asked to join Skid Row — this was before Sebastian Bach, whom Bret stayed “totally cool with,” even after Bach ascended to emaciated-rock-god stardom — but he turned it down to move to Phoenix and play with his brother again in a band called Kaiser. Kaiser had a sponsorship from Bud Light, and was “the top unsigned act around,” but when Bret had a son, he called it quits on the music life. He didn’t want to be a road dad, so he looked for a day job. He found stability when he joined Sheriff Joe’s volunteer posse, and then became a detention officer, or D.O., in 1995.

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