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)

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.

[

Bret Kaiser's band, Madam X, “High In Highschool”

But Bret missed performing and looked for an outlet. After
letting his music sit on the shelf for nearly a decade, he started playing
shows again — as Elvis. It was an easy transition, trading in the mane of
glam for the pompadour and bright, tight whites of Vegas-era Elvis. Being
an Elvis impersonator or, as Bret prefers to call it, an Elvis tribute artist,
was always a dream — Bret’s house is filled with memorabilia of “The King”
— and it seems to be a fairly lucrative field in the greater Phoenix area.
His first gig was entertaining the geriatric partygoers at a luau for the
Water Fitness Club of Sun City West, and he’s been booked up most weekends
ever since, even doing Sheriff Joe’s annual Volunteer Banquet, during which
the two sing a duet. “I get a kick out of it,” Sheriff Joe says, “since I
arrested Elvis once, back in 1957 in Las Vegas.”
With the pompadour and sideburns that Bret’s avocation requires, he’s well-known
among the Maricopa County inmates. And well-liked. Bret’s never had a problem
with an inmate in 12 years, and he chalks it up to his experience onstage.
“I’m a people person,” he says. “Being an entertainer has helped me as a detention
officer. I like to make people happy. That’s what I do best.” He’s even been
recognized by inmates; one guy remembered Bret from when he opened for Madam
X back in 1984. And Bret knows that as a rock & roll singer, he or any
of his friends could very well have wound up in the pods too. Jail’s an unfortunate
circumstance, but it’s not his job to judge inmates for their mistakes.
It was, however, his job to judge their singing ability. The only musician
on the panel, Bret took the lead in coaching the inmates through the process.
And he was more than happy to see the tank orders keep piling up, enough so
that over the course of the two weeks, the audition panel would hear more
than 100 contestants.
Christopher Marsh had done some
time in prison, and “killed his number,” or finished his sentence,
last summer. Then he got hauled back in for an alleged burglary. When not
inside, Christopher works in construction, and he’d never performed musically
other than playing an orphan in Oliver! back in grade school. Christopher’s
previous time made him real jail-savvy, so before he agreed to sing for the
sheriff, he cleared it with his “head.” That’s the elected leader of one’s
demographic faction; in Christopher’s case, that’s whites, “or Peckerwoods,
as they’re affectionately called.”
The head Peckerwood wanted to know what was in it for the rest of them. Fast
food, was the answer, and the head agreed — “as long as you don’t shake Sheriff
Joe’s hand. And you better win.” Christopher had that in mind, approaching
the microphone, but he killed his musical number — “With Arms Wide Open,”
by Creed — and knew he had a chance at the next round.
Katrina Duhart was one of the few women to sign up. She’d been in just a month,
and already stood out as friendly and good-spirited despite “some bad choices
I’m really trying to get past,” which was Katrina’s way of describing her
six months for conspiracy to commit fraud.
Katrina’s a big girl, with a husky voice, and the narrow range that goes with
it, so she was disappointed there was no Mary J. Blige or Macy Gray on the
list. Most of the female vocalists represented, like Diana Ross, would have
been hard to hit. Eventually, Katrina chose Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’,” but when
she went in front of the panel, she shook so much with stage fright she thought
she’d drop the microphone.
Katrina sang karaoke with her cousins all the time, so she didn’t know what
had gotten into her. It was probably the fear of disappointment, she thought.
Jail was already bad news, and she didn’t want any more of that. Bret tried
to coax Katrina out of her shell. “You have a beautiful voice, I’m sure, Katrina,”
he said. “Just relax and take it slow.” After 20 minutes and several tries
ending with “I can’t do it” and Bret coming right back with “Yes, you can,
girl,” Katrina finally brought the song in a cappella, just like Keys, and
went on to finish with no hiccups. When it was over, Katrina was shocked to
see Bret and the other panelists rise for a standing ovation. “Katrina,” they
said, “we can’t wait to see you again.”

[

Katrina doing her thing

With the close of auditions, the panel
conferred and compared notes. It was often obvious who would or wouldn’t make
the cut, but there were some borderline cases. And sadly, several of the panel’s
favorites were either disqualified — violent offenders couldn’t compete —
or got released too soon.
It was a constant problem, those pesky short sentences. One of the other star
female singers had a missing tooth and wild hair, and came out shy like a
frightened little mouse, but when she stepped to the microphone and “I Will
Always Love You” rang out across the room, half the D.O.s swore it was “better
than Whitney.” When the panel learned she would be out before the Inmate Idle
finals, Thelda just about cried. She even had a sneaking desire to look at
the girl’s record to see if she was a repeat visitor to the jail. Maybe she’d
be back soon, she wondered, or perhaps they could bring her in on something
outstanding? But then Thelda thought better of it. Bret was equally impressed
by a guy who sang a Kid Rock ballad, but he was leaving jail the next day.
“You want to come back for the finals?” Bret asked. Not surprisingly, the
response was: “Dude, are you kidding?”
Working with what they had, the panel winnowed it down to 18 singers. They
chose a diversity of contestants and song types, for broad appeal during the
semifinals, when Bret would record videos of the performances so the inmates
could watch them in their pods and vote directly on who they wanted to see
in the final six. But Bret was disappointed that there were no semifinalists
singing “My Girl.” That had been the favorite number during tryouts, but no
one came near doing justice to the Temptations’ original.
Then, at the last minute, Bret was wheeling an amp through the hall at Fourth
Avenue when he passed a holding tank filled with inmates coming from court,
and Bret stopped in to see if there were any newcomers who had a decent set
of pipes.
Corey Brothers spoke up. He’d recently turned himself in on a violation of
probation, and just missed the auditions. A longtime singer from a musical
family — his father has performed with the Gospel Cavaliers for years — Corey
was a natural. He hadn’t slept the night before, and he was depressed about
making a mess of things recently. He’d lost a fiancée and had just been sentenced
to 60 days on a 15-year-old warrant, but Corey had a gentle charisma and friendly
demeanor, and when he hit just a few notes of “My Girl,” Bret stopped him
short. “That’s all I need to hear,” Bret said. “You’re in.”
Round 2: The Semis
Good news here at K-JOE today. Many of you guys out there gave it your
all in our first-ever Inmate Idle auditions. Our judges listened, and narrowed
the field to 19 singers. Now you will get the chance to pick your favorites
for the finals. It’s one vote per inmate, guys. You know what to do. Now here’s
a little Bobby Darin for ya. “Mack the Knife,” people. Don’t get any ideas.

Once the names were announced, life in the Maricopa County jail system felt
like a musical, spontaneously erupting into song as practice began in earnest.
Gary worked out his Garth Brooks pitch on his bunk. Corey was a “trusty,”
meaning he had a job; working the loading dock and kitchens, he’d sing any
chance he’d get. John, who wrote his own music, honed his Motown sound. Katrina
worked in the laundry, washing hundreds of pounds of stripes each day, and
she’d sing with two other girls, Kristi and Tweet. They used to take turns,
or sometimes sing ensemble pieces like the reworked “Lady Marmalade” from
Moulin Rouge, but with Katrina competing in Inmate Idle, it became
Alicia Keys all the time.
Bret decided Thelda’s little karaoke kit wouldn’t cut it for the semifinals,
so he brought up his own equipment from his Elvis shows — a PA with some nice
mikes — to boost the sound quality for the video recording. Another program
officer ran the tape. Gary, Corey and John all did one take with little prep,
but Katrina had a problem: The camera had spooked her all over again. She
screwed up so many times that Bret eventually tricked her into singing by
telling her the camera was off. She wasn’t exactly in key on that take, but
that was the take they had.
Christopher didn’t know he’d made the cut at first. There had been a riot
in his pod, its members dispersed to other housing units. Christopher had
been thrown in the hole, even though he stayed away from the fight, with his
back against the wall. After a week in solitary, he wrote a tank order with
three questions:
1. Why am I here?
2. I want to see the hearing sergeant.
3. When do I get to sing again for Inmate Idle?
Bret and the other panel members got wind of Christopher’s situation and intervened.
They didn’t want Christopher in the hole, because according to the rules of
Inmate Idle, contestants in restricted housing could not advance.
A few days later, Christopher was back with Bret, in a new set of stripes,
loosening up for the camera.
“If I make it to the finals,” Christopher asked, “can I make a shout-out?”
“Why?” Bret wanted to know. “You got a girlfriend in here?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
That was the real reason Christopher joined Inmate Idle. His girlfriend, Hope,
had been taken in on a probation violation, and this was the only way to communicate
with her. Maybe she’ll see the video, he thought, or even be in the audience
at the finals. “That’s why I want to sing ‘Arms Wide Open,’ ” he said. “It’s
a nice ballad for the ladies.”

[

It may have been a stroke of correctional genius
to offer the prize to the winner’s entire pod, because as the contest progressed,
whole housing units united behind their contestants. Maricopa County jails house
10,000 involuntary residents, a small city of mostly unhappy criminals, often
brimming with tension and danger, but with Inmate Idle in full swing, everyone
noticed a brighter mood inside the wire. All facilities reported that violence
in the yards dropped, as inmates stayed on best behavior so as to not get their
pod disqualified. Racial clans and homemade shanks, it seemed, were no match
for the camaraderie generated by putting a few personal pan double Meat Lovers
pizzas on the line.
But even that may not quite explain how much the inmates really worked together.
As early as the first auditions, all the inmates were supportive of each other,
even if they sang like harpies. “It’s cool,” they’d say. “You did all right,
man.”

John H. Lowery, Jr. pretty much nailing Otis Redding

Bret and his co-host Grant saw it with their own eyes by the time
the semifinals were broadcast. The videos — plain, static shots of men and women
in stripes and bad light with little room to do much in the way of performance
— were a welcome change from the normal programming selection, limited to C-SPAN,
the Weather Channel and the Food Network, the irony of which did not go unnoticed
by the inmates as they watched Rachael Ray make baked eggplant in her matching
sweater sets and learned that it was sunny in places they couldn’t visit. During
the contest, Sheriff Joe had started allowing broadcasts of American Idol,
but it was when their own homemade version of the show finally appeared that
the inmates went wild. Bret and Grant watched, along with one of the contestants
in his pod. He sang “The Dance,” by Garth Brooks, and Bret and Grant were surprised
to see the pod absolutely united in cheers. Black, white, Latino — they “all
went nuts, even those who were clearly not Garth Brooks fans, really coming
together.”
Grant was glad, because he’d joined the Sheriff’s Office to make a difference
in people’s lives. It sounds corny and counterintuitive, he knows. But Grant
is a tall, friendly and preternaturally cheerful Mormon missionary whose political
idol is Bobby Kennedy. Since he picked up Spanish on a mission in Colombia,
Grant teaches an extremely popular English-language class in the jail, in addition
to his K-JOE hosting. And as one of a half-dozen D.O.s in the entire system
who can speak Spanish, Grant hears all the prisoners talking. Of all the programs
the jail has offered — parenting class, anger management, GED course work —
none has ever caught fire like Inmate Idle.
Over the next few days, 7,000 ballots came back. Bret was sorry to see some
of the contestants go, but he was not at all surprised to see Corey wind up
with the highest tally. Christopher came in second, with John and Gary just
behind. And Katrina, who watched all the videos and then filled out her own
pink ballot for Corey, seemed karmically rewarded for her honesty when she just
barely edged out her next competitor by a single vote for the sixth and final
slot.
As K-JOE spread the word, the
finalists discovered they’d become jailhouse celebrities. Katrina’s nickname
is Cookie, because everyone says she’s so sweet, and every time her name was
mentioned, the women in her yard would yell out, “Cookie — you did good, girl!”
People she didn’t know would stop her in the day room, by the laundry, on the
ramp where everyone hangs out: “We know you’re gonna make it, Cookie! Sing for
us right now!”
On-the-spot requests were the norm for all of them. Gary would entertain with
a country repertoire. John used the new listeners to try out his own material,
autobiographical ditties about tragic disappointments. On the loading docks,
where Corey carried in the huge, never-ending boxes of cheap and sometimes-expired
ham and bologna that make up the jail’s infamously bad chow, the D.O.s kept
asking to hear a few bars of “My Girl.” Even working his second shift, where
he’d serve that chow in other jails, he’d be recognized from the tapes. “Aw
shit, it’s ‘My Girl’! ” he’d hear. “You sounded good! Maybe one night you won’t
have to eat this stuff.”
Once, Christopher found himself pounding out his favorite song, “Hold My Hand,”
by Hootie and the Blowfish, in a holding tank on his way back from court. “If
they had that one on the song sheet,” Christopher told the other inmates, “I
know I would take the finals — no doubt, man.”
Back in his pod, when news about Christopher’s ascent to the finals circulated,
he was immediately cornered by a couple of guys with big ideas.
“Yo, man, I tell you what,” one said. “I think you should forget the judges
and play to the crowd. It’s all about energy, man.”

[

Gary singing Friends in Low Places

“Yeah, and I’ve been in the music game before,” the other one
added. “I should be getting released soon. I’ll take you nationwide. We’re talking
Letterman, you know, Kimmel and shit. Whatever.”
Corey got similar offers from would-be hangers-on for his jail-yard entourage.
After the semifinals, he was approached by a couple of managers, bodyguards,
a few financial advisers. Oh sure, he thought, I’d like to meet my financial
adviser in jail.
One day, Christopher was surprised to discover he even had fans. Calvin, a quiet,
diabetic man whom Christopher sometimes talked to, found an extra pink ballot
and pencil and brought it to Christopher for an autograph.
“What the hell?” Christopher said, laughing it off.
“I feel kinda stupid doing this,” Calvin said. “But I’m serious.”
TO CAL, Christopher wrote. KEEP THE BLOOD SUGAR LOW, BUDDY.
No sooner had Christopher signed it than he had a flash of second thoughts.
“Oh shit,” he wondered. “What if Calvin is in here for forgery?”
Round 3: The Finals
Hello, K-JOE listeners! Thanks to your votes, Inmate Idle is moving along.
For those of you out at Tent City, you’re going to get a real treat when we
stage the final concert live. Weatherman says rain, but let’s hope he’s wrong,
because your contestants are ready to sing their hearts out

Everyone knew it was showtime when the Rocky theme began echoing across
Tent City. From the stage, the view was 270 degrees of black and white and pink
— a thousand prisoners cheering wildly through the chainlink fences, women on
the left, men on the right. A few portable towers lifted men with shotguns against
the blue desert mantle, but aside from a few stone-faced guards and muzzled
German shepherds, everyone was gearing up for a good time.
One at a time, Bob introduced the finalists to increasing applause. All wore
brand-new stripes, which another inmate had volunteered to clean and press that
morning. Gary and Christopher had combed their long hair and Katrina had gotten
a special makeover from Thelda’s staff because early-morning rain turned her
hair into a frizz. Bret had given them one last pep talk, with final pointers
on holding the notes, emphasizing the chorus and playing to the audience. For
a true performer, he told them, a charity event is the same as a stadium full
of fans with lighters in the air — and, presumably, a captive audience for whom
lighters are contraband. “Entertain like you’re entertaining a million people,”
he’d said. Then he’d joined hands with all six for a prayer circle led by John
before going off to suit up as Elvis.
“All right, now let’s meet the judges,” Bob roared. Reminding everyone they
were in jail, the finals of Inmate Idle would not be decided by popular vote.
Out came Sheriff Joe (to boos from the inmates) and an Elvis-clad Bret (to the
overture from Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra). “You just haven’t
lived,” someone said, “until you’ve seen an Elvis impersonator opening a jail-yard
set with Richard Wagner.”
“And now,” Bob continued, “let’s hear it for one of the biggest superstars in
the history of rock & roll, Alice Cooper!”
Yes: Alice Cooper. Music legend. Avid golfer. Seasonal Phoenix resident.
And now Inmate Idle celebrity panelist. Although his was the biggest ruckus
kicked up by the inmates, Cooper is probably the nicest guy in devil makeup
you’ll ever meet; known for his lack of ego and his philanthropic bent, he was
gracious as he thanked the crowd and sat down to watch Bret kick the program
off as “The King.”
Bret sauntered up in whiter-than-white spats and more tassels than Elvis would
ever have dared to wear, and jumped right into “Jailhouse Rock,” throwing kicks
and foot changes, journeying into the crowd and mugging for the women in stripes
on the other side of the fence. Play like it’s always packed, Bret says, and
now it was: With all those inmates, and one of his rock & roll heroes just
a few feet away, Bret realized while basking in the applause, Inmate Idle was
the biggest concert he’d done in years.
It was up to Katrina, the first contestant, to keep up the momentum. Shortly
before the finals, Bret had converted the women’s day room at Tent City into
an impromptu concert hall just for Katrina so she could give a command performance
for a familiar audience and build up her confidence. Taking the stage, Katrina
could see the women holding up handmade signs rooting for her. A few days earlier,
the women inmates had shocked their D.O.s by surreptitiously putting in a tank
order for glitter and glue and poster board to surprise Katrina. Never in 12
years had anyone seen the women in Tent City jointly volunteer to do a project,
especially one in support of another inmate. Katrina’s vocal cords were scratched
from too much practice, so she’d switched to “One, Two Step” by Ciara to take
advantage of her remarkable body control and focus on dancing. Katrina’s stripes
sagged appropriately low all through “One, Two Step,” and hung on during her
finale, which included some incredibly precise jumping booty aimed directly
at Sheriff Joe.
“What’s up, Estrella!” was John’s opening shout-out. In rehearsal, John had
wanted to switch his song to “My Way,” which confused Bret, since John’s Otis
Redding was full of soul — not exactly the prime ingredient in Sinatra. When
Bret said John’s “My Way” wasn’t making use of his R&B chops, John said,
“Got it. How about ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’? Or I know: ‘Garden Party’ by Ricky
Nelson?” Finally, Bret persuaded him to stick with Otis Redding, which was right
on target for the judges and the audience. John had spent the previous night
improvising the song to fit his circumstances: “I left my home on the south
side. And the sheriff gave me somewhere to stay. I had no one on my side, to
post the bail I needed to pay. So I’m just gonna sit on the dock of the bay,
wasting time.”
Gary’s “I Got Friends in Low Places” went over just as Bret had hoped. Gary
leaned into each chorus, with its appropriately boozy regret (“where the whiskey
drowns and the beer chases”), and got everyone singing along. As a former rocker,
Bret had advised Gary on how to use his long hair as an additional instrument,
as versatile as the voice or guitar. Gary started with a ponytail, then shook
it down and was swinging it in circles by the time he unveiled his own lyrical
adaptation: “I Got Friends in Joe’s Places.”
When Corey was introduced, he was reserved, as usual. His deep, slow voice was
tentative, but once the music started, Corey’s alto kicked in and did the trick.
He’d come a long way since Bret found him in that holding tank, with 60 days
and nothing to look forward to. Bret knew Corey would have a light stage presence,
so he’d suggested doing footwork: “That’s what the Temptations are known for.”
Corey used the bridge for some modest choreography, a nice touch during which
Cooper and Bret followed along in their chairs, snapping their fingers, swinging
their arms. Behind the fence, the women swayed en masse until Corey left the
stage.
Christopher had grossly miscalculated the security situation surrounding
singing in jail and kept himself awake all night with wild visions of crowd-surfing
the audience. When he realized most of the audience was behind a fence, Christopher
decided he still needed to rock, so he jumped up onstage, waving his hair around,
pulling back on the mike with eyes closed, and thanking “all you ladies.” Unfortunately,
his own lady was not at the tents; Hope had been released from jail and Christopher
never heard from her, so he assumed it was over. That’s why he ditched “With
Arms Wide Open.” With his girl gone, he decided, why risk it all on a ballad?
Creed’s “Higher” had the kick he needed.
Bob invited all the finalists up for the moment of truth. The judges compared
scorecards, where they’d recorded marks for voice, performance and personality.
Cooper presented the official Inmate Idle certificate. “I tell you what, it
came down to two,” he said. “Corey and Johnny here.” Fingers through the fence,
the vast striped crowd died down in anticipation. The men in mirrored aviators
eased up on their trigger fingers. Cooper looked at the tally, made an obligatory
dramatic pause, and announced the winner: “Corey, you’re the man. Come on up
here.”
Cameras closed in as Sheriff Joe stepped in to explain the prize, which was
already en route from a local McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. “At first, we thought
this was a lark, a joke,” he said. “But as time went on, these guys really came
together.” More than Sheriff Joe knew: As with any good reality show, the contestants
had created an alliance — whoever won, they’d agreed to ask that the prize be
extended to all the finalists. John spoke up, and with the news cameras rolling,
the sheriff relented. “You’re right,” he said. “You should get the food too.”
Corey rolled his eyes at the sheriff’s magnanimity, and added, “We really did
this for the music.”
Alice Cooper stuck around for the post-show publicity scrum, during which Sheriff
Joe made endless jokes about his “con-test,” while all six contestants told
reporters they were genuinely grateful for this strange opportunity. “Here I
am in jail,” John mused, “singing for the people and talking to you all about
music. I mean, how bad can things be?”
Bret proudly posed for photographers with the finalists. As he had told them,
performance is about escape. You make people forget their problems for just
a little while, and Inmate Idle brought some momentary escape to the otherwise
gray world of jail inside Maricopa County. “For the time we were singing,” Corey
told reporters, “we weren’t doing time. And neither were all those people singing
along.”

[

Corey's performance of “My Girl”

When Corey came through the steel
door with a dozen D.O.s and a pallet full of fast food, his entire pod
gave him a hero’s welcome. Grant announced Corey’s new title and wheeled in
a giant vanilla cake with butter-cream frosting congratulating him as the winner.
Corey modestly offered that, in the end, all the finalists had won the competition,
and officially inaugurated the victory feast. John and Gary, who both reside
in a nearby pod, were at the front of the line.
“My dream is to hear people singing my songs,” John said, while enjoying his
first pizza in months. With a short stint of state prison time coming his way,
John will have a bit more time to develop his song book, but he plans on doing
a demo when that’s done.
“I know there were no record execs in the audience at Tent City,” Corey said,
“but maybe I’ll get the opportunity to record music when I get out.” Until then,
Corey said, he plans to keep busy with double shifts, and despite the inedible
food, the pink underwear and the stripes, he truly does not begrudge the sheriff
for the tough way he runs his jail, since it has convinced Corey never to come
back. “I don’t want to be singing for Inmate Idle’s next season.”

Christopher singing Creed

 

Our sister paper Phoenix New Times has been covering Sheriff Joe Arpaio for more than a decade and has quite a bit to say about the publicity-hungry lawman. Here is a sampling of their work on the sheriff who has been called “a blowhard, self-aggrandizing, ignoramus who has cost Maricopa County, Arizona, tons of money pursuing his idiotic vision of 'tough jails' and ham-fisted policing”:

King of Pain, April 26, 2007Boob's Tube, Jan. 25, 2007Recall Joe, Feb. 10, 2005