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

Jailhouse Rock

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


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