Adam Schrader: Robbery. Narcotics. Assault. And Murder. These are the rap sheets from America's best musicians you’ve never heard. Why? These men and women are serving life sentences in some of the country’s most secure prisons. Welcome to Sounds From the Slammer, a new music podcast from journalists Adam Schrader and Angus Mordant. Each episode features original compositions and cover tunes from these inmates. The artists behind bars will also discuss their crimes and how the opportunity to pursue music changed their lives. This episode we’re visiting Limon Correctional Facility in Limon, Colorado. My name is Adam Schrader and I’m your host for this episode.
Adam Schrader: Limon Correctional Facility, a mixed-class prison including maximum security, opened in 1991 in a semi-arid region of Colorado’s eastern plains. It can house up to 960 prisoners and counted 173 with life sentences at the end of March, according to Colorado Department of Corrections data. Prisoners with good behavior are allowed to partake in developmental programs, such as obtaining their GED. Limon staff also provide inmates the opportunity to form its facility bands, which perform only at events inside prison walls. There are currently less than 10 inmates who have been approved to perform in the prison’s four bands. In this episode, we’re speaking with three members of the prison’s R&B group. They are Odus Bell, Joaquin Mares and Jody Aguirre. These interviews were conducted by cell phone, so the audio may be difficult to pick out for some listeners. I’ll do my best to recap what was said as the episode goes along when suitable.
Odus Bell: My name is Odus Bell O-D-U-S-B-E-L-L. I’ve been locked up 31 years. I’m in here for assault, attempted murder, a bunch of burglaries. They gave me 160 years for that. And then when I got here when I was young, I attempted escape and they added another 20 years to it. So, altogether, I’ve got about 170 years. But I’m not, you know, I don’t think about it no more because, you know what? When you do things like that, that’s what you’ve got coming.
Adam Schrader: How old were you when you were first incarcerated?
Odus Bell: I was 21.
Adam Schrader: Did you play any music before you were locked up?
Odus Bell: Yes I did play instruments off and on since I was about nine years old/
Adam Schrader: Were you looking to pursue a music career before you were arrested?
Odus Bell: Yes, yes. I—no. I—no, I didn’t take advantage of it like I should when I was young. Most kids don’t listen to their parents. But when I got locked up, I got in more trouble when I got here it seems like I got worse so they put me in ad-seg [administrative segregation] for like 19 years, I stayed there and I continued to read music about books and everything. I knew it was in my blood, I just wasn’t listening to what myself could [do.] But when I got here, a lot of officers here gave us a lot of opportunities especially the Warden, Mr. Falk., and Major Long they gave us the opportunity to express ourselves and do things that better ourselves up again so I took extreme advantage of it and I got pretty good at it.
Adam Schrader: Mr. Bell is referring to Major Jeff Long and Warden James Falk with the Limon Correctional Facility.
Odus Bell: A lot of guys here draw. A lot of guys here do other things. But I believe that music is the best way to express ourselves and show society that hey people do change, you know what I mean. When I come here, I was young. I made foolish mistakes. I done foolish things. But now I have the opportunity to express myself through my music and let people know that we are still human beings we just make terrible mistakes and now that this facility is allowing us to do that I think it’s the most wonderful thing in the world.
Adam Schrader: What genres of music do you like to play?
Odus Bell: I started out, when I first got here, I started out with gospel. That’s one of my favorites. I play jazz, play rhythm and blues. We play everything basically because we’re the facility bands so we have to play all genres of music, we can’t just play one thing. Because sometimes we do the banquets here, the volunteer banquets. The volunteer banquets consist of staff coming in and doing the things that they do so we put a little party together for them it’s more like dinner music, wine music you know, kind of kind of like that.
Adam Schrader: Mr. Bell also tells us about the opportunities in which he gets to perform. These include benefit concerts for charity as well as honorary ceremonies for staff and inmates including GED graduations.
Odus Bell: My family, we grew up as Christian people, you know. That has always been in my blood and that has always been around our house. So I just knew it and it became easier for me. But my favorite music that I play is jazz but I love gospel and then it gave me the opportunity to learn more in church because I play in all the church facilities here, all their programs, I do all their Christmas shows. I do all their banquets, I do all their religious ceremonies. I play the music for them, you know.
Adam Schrader: Creating this pilot episode of Sounds from the Slammer was special. The prison’s R&B group, rhapsodic at the opportunity to have their music aired in this podcast, wrote four original compositions to premiere on Sounds From the Slammer. The demo CD was sent by United States Postal Service to my home address—which is probably the coolest thing that’s ever happened in my news career. We’ll air those tracks in just a moment. The interview with Mr. Bell was conducted before the band had a name. Since the interview, the band has come up with the name Next Level
Odus Bell: Now that you ask the question, Mr. Adam, we have started working on relig… on, uh, original songs because we thought that you might want to do that. So were going to put our originals on there. Most of them are rhythm and blues, some are ballads, some are jazz, some are gospel, so we’re going to do a variety for you, maybe two or three. We’re going to do some good stuff for you. I think you’re going to be very, very impressed. Last concert we did, we just called ourselves The Right Notes. And Before that it was Mixed Company. Now that we’re putting together a whole new thing together for you now, we’re not sure what we’re going to call our band yet. Most of my songs is about love, peace and understanding. Some might come from different angles. But I express love., that’s the main thing. You know, hey, this is the chance to open up to everybody, you know because sometimes you can’t say what you want to say with your mouth but that instrument will do it but like I say mine is basically based on love and there’s a message to young society too that you don’t have to be the person that you are, you know what I’m saying, you don’t have to have the friends, you don’t have to have this and that. All you need is to trust in god and you can do anything you want to do.
Adam Schrader: So how much do you get to practice?
Odus Bell: Well, Major Long and Warden Falk gave me, I’m the pinpoint of the band room so I’m basically in there anywhere from eight to ten hours a day.
Adam Schrader: Odus is saying that his job in the prison is being in charge of the band room, where he works at least eight hours a day.
Odus Bell: That’s my job.
Adam Schrader: Tell me more about your band mates.
Odus Bell: We have really good musicians here, we really do. Matter of fact, you probably won’t get the chance to interview the other three which is Alex Linzy, Todd Robinson and Michael Chambers. Those are the three other guys. There are six of us altogether that do the facility bands and these guys are wonderful musicians, they really are, they have a passion for it.
Adam Schrader: What was it like getting to bond with these guys? Did you guys like, you know, form a family within in the prison? What is it like to be a part of a group with these fellow inmates?
Odus Bell: Yes, we do. It feels like a brother relationship, a friend relationship, because we have to depend on each other. Everyone has to do his part. Everyone has to do his job. So we’ve been doing it together now for about for seven years. So We trust each other we depend on each other you know what I mean. It’s really made us understand and most of them are god-loving men. That’s what I like. They love the Lord. That’s the main thing about me. You know, I’m not—I don’t try to push it on nobody, but I’m just glad that they are—god-fearing men.
Adam Schrader: Do you think that music helps curb recidivism, you know the idea that inmates will return to their troubled past?
Odus Bell: Men wasn’t put on this earth to rob, rape, murder and kill and do things like that. We wasn’t meant do that. We just made those bad choices. But this is the opportunity for me to wake up and see now that that’s not for me. I don’t ever want to do anything like that again. And like I say, I’m going to take extreme advantage of what I have now. Even though I’m in prison! I’d rather stay here and play the rest of my music the rest of my life than get back out there and be a burden on society again. We weren’t built to do that and I ain’t ever going to do that again.
Adam Schrader: After we wrapped up our interview, Mr. Bell said he had one more thing that he wanted to say to the public.
Odus Bell: Mr. Adam, I’d like to tell the public this here, you know, music is good for the soul. All music is good as long as you talk about something positive. Something meaningful and talking about something you experienced in life and that’s music I like. Music is a way to communication with all people no matter where you at. Some type of music is going to touch your heart. But you know, I don’t put down all the rappers and everybody else but I think everything should be positive and not—there’s so much chaos and madness going on in the world we don’t need nothing negative. We don’t need to be talking about women or men or talking about pimpin’ and this and that, we need to express love through our music, understanding or something that we experienced through our music. That’s what the world needs right now. We’ve got enough chaos, we don’t need it anymore, you know what I mean!
Adam Schrader: Thank you for your time Odus. Now get ready for this soft classic rock throwback with vocals reminiscent of R&B greats Ben E. King, Percy Sledge and Al Green. The song, titled “Keys to My Heart,” features Mr. Bell on lead vocals, bass and all guitars. Alex Linzy, whom we did not have the opportunity to interview, performs drums, percussion, and background vocals. Inmate Joaquin Mares also joins in on background vocals.
KEYS TO MY HEART: click here for lyrics.
Joaquin Mares: My name is Joaquin Mares, J-O-A-Q-U-I-N-M-A-R-E-S. I’m in my 25th calendar now and I have life without parole.
Adam Schrader: We apologize that the audio cuts out there. Mr. Mares is saying that he is currently serving a life sentence without parole.
Joaquin Mares: I originally picked up the guitar when I was 15. A relative of mine originally tried to show me how to play the guitar. So I played off and on for a little while, nothing serious. You know, once I got to prison it didn’t take me long to find a place in the music program here and I’ve been playing ever since, playing in bands. And one of the reasons I started playing guitar is because I used to like heavy metal a lot. Those are my roots. But as I grew, as I grew older and matured, my taste in music kind of broadened so I learned how to play, you know, rock to jazz to a little bit of country, classical. I love classical guitar.
Adam Schrader: What do you like about classical guitar?
Joaquin Mares: Well I like the fact that its—you know, you don’t need a band.
Adam Schrader: What are some of these positive character traits you’ve learned from playing music?
Joaquin Mares: Well, 25 years ago as a very young and immature man, I made a serious mistake, the ultimate mistake of taking someone’s life. I’ve exhausted my entire adult life striving to not only striving to not only understand my crime in a way as to provide some clarity as to why it happened but learning to be responsible and learning to express my remorse and music has provided me the means to accomplish both. It wasn’t always like that. I mean, when I first got here, I viewed music as a way to escape the reality of my situation\. You know, I was 20 years old. Just came down with a fresh life sentence. You know, I didn’t—it was my first time to prison. I really didn’t know what I was going to do to survive the situation. So that was a way for me to escape. But what I didn’t realize was that in the process of learning to play I was learning the habits that are, you know, conducive to shaping my character in a, in a positive way. Unless you’re extraordinarily gifted, which I, I can’t say that I am, music, you have to learn. You have to dedicate a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of dedication. It’s not easy. Originally, I learned music as a way to escape my situation but what it ended up doping was teaching me the opposite.
Adam Schrader: Can you talk a little more about that?
Joaquin Mares: Because of the nature of the situation, we’re constantly having personnel changes in our group. You know, guys can move to another facility, they could go out to court, they can get in trouble and get removed from population. So, whenever that happens, other guys in the band have to step up and, and fill that part. So I’m fluent in guitar but I’ve had to play bass, I’ve had to play keyboard. I haven’t gotten to the drums yet but that might be, that might be a bit down the road.
Adam Schrader: What do other inmates and staff think about you performing in these bands?
Joaquin Mares: I’ve mentored numerous aspiring musicians throughout the whole entire time I’ve been here. The staff that know me, the staff that have been here for a while and the ones who haven’t been here as long, as they get to know everybody here they see how they interact with other prisoners and how they do their time, you know they know people who are involved in the music program, they know that, you know, they are not the type who are going to get in trouble because in order to maintain your status in the music program you have to stay out of trouble. There is a redemptive power in creative expression and, you know, for whatever reason that we find ourselves in this situation, you know, we do owe a huge—we owe society. And just sitting in a prison cell, you know, we’re not able to repay our debt to society just sitting in a prison cell. So we need to come up with things that are going to, you know, enable us to repay our debt to society. You know, I think that music provides that. Its provided that for me in my life and for a lot of guys that, you know, I’ve been able to work with throughout the years.
Adam Schrader: Mr. Mares says that many prisons lack what he calls “pro-social influence,” that is the idea that positive social structures and opportunities within prisons will help prisoners reform and become better people. That includes opportunities like Limon’s facility bands, which don’t just provide creative expression and discipline, but permit model inmates to socialize with each other and those who might benefit from them as role models.
Joaquin Mares: You know, one of the things that is lacking in the prison system is a complete and total lack of pro social influence. It’s hard for me to breathe because for whatever reason that guys are put in prison we couldn’t function in society, right? So they put everybody in the same spot and I think we’re expected to just be good but there’s just a complete and total lack of pro social influence in our lives. From my own experience, I know that there are younger guys that look up to the guys that are in my situation. And I know that I’ve impacted a lot of youngster’s lives too.
Adam Schrader: We just heard from inmate Joaquin Mares. Now stay tuned for his ballad, Love’s Philosophy—representative of R&B from the 1980s and including elements of ‘80s pop rock. Mares performs lead and rhythm guitars—often with flowing guitar solos. Linzy returns on drums. Inmate Todd Robinson joins in on keyboards. Jody Aguirre sings lead vocals, while Michael Chambers sings background vocals. Here’s Love’s Philosophy.
LOVE’S PHILOSOPHY: click here for lyrics.
Adam Schrader: This crooning ‘70s rhythm and blues slow jam, titled “Stay,” also features messages of love and was written by Alex Linzy. He performs drums, bass and lead vocals on this track. Joaquin Mares performs lead guitar and Odus Bell performs rhythm guitar. Todd Robinson performs keyboards. And Michael Chambers sings background vocals. Jody Aguirre also sings backup vocals on this track.
STAY: click here for lyrics.
Adam Schrader: The next inmate we’re going to hear from is Jody Aguirre. Mr. Aguirre says he’s in jail for conspiracy to commit first degree murder. Aguirre said a man he was in business with at the time committed the crime with a relative of his. Though he says he wasn’t privy to the crime until after it was committed, he says he was still convicted of the charge when he refused to provide information to police.
Jody Aguirre: I’m here for being a business partner with a friend, one of my best friends who was fresh out of prison in 1992 and did something and I wouldn’t tell the authorities what he told me he did, something he did with someone that was related to me. Because I wouldn’t divulge my knowledge, and because I owned half the company and my ties to these individuals, I was convicted of first degree murder. Music honestly saved my life. In this situation, you try to find anything to give you hope, to motivate you, to encourage you and music, especially during this past 24 years has done that. And like after I escaped from prison in 2003 from Buena Vista, I was sent to solitary confinement for a number of years and there you’re allowed to hear music and that’s where I heard the song “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush that really kept me going.
Adam Schrader: In case you didn’t catch that, Jody says he spent time in solitary confinement for an attempted prison escape. The prison Jody said he escaped from was Buena Vista Correction Facility in Buena Vista, Colorado. He first heard Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s duet “Don’t Give Up” while in solitary, which he says inspired him to turn his life around and get into music.
Jody Aguirre: When I got out, I made a choice. When I got out of solitary confinement, I made a choice that I wasn’t going to take my talent for granted, I wasn’t going to take anything whether it be the rain or whatever, I was going to use it and do something good with it and I immediately auditioned for a band when I got out of solitary confinement and, apparently, I was good enough to make the band and ever since then, we’ve been in several bands over the years making music.
Adam Schrader: Do you think that all prisons should offer music programs?
Joaquin Mares: Oh most definitely. Most, most definitely. You ever seen the Shawshank Redemption?
Adam Schrader: Yeah, it’s actually one of my favorite films.
Joaquin Mares: Remember that scene where he’s in the warden’s office and he plays that beautiful record and he puts it over the intercom in the yard and everything?
Adam Schrader: The song featured in the film was the duet Sull’aria from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s, “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Jody Aguirre: And the reaction. Everybody stops and they listen to this beautiful—I think it was a sonata if I’m not mistaken. That’s truly how music effects people in here.
Adam Schrader: Do other inmates get to see you perform that often?
Jody Aguirre: We just did, I don’t know if my bandmates told you, we just did a fundraiser for Special Olympics last month where we raised enough money to send a couple Olympians to Europe. And next month, on July the twenty-something, we’re going to do a cancer walk fundraiser. I wish you could come to that because there will be multiple bands playing.
Adam Schrader: So is this R&B group the only group you have within the prison or are there any other facility bands?
Jody Aguirre: Odus Bell, who is a drummer and great rhythm guitarist, is in our jazz/R&B band.
Adam Schrader: The R&B band he’s referring to in those last quotes is Next Level—the band featured in this podcast.
Jody Aguirre: Mr. Mares, Joaquin Mares, is in that band as well. And he and I also have a rock band where we play stuff like old Black Sabbath to new, new stuff and some originals as well. He’s a wonderful, wonderful lead guitarist—can play classical music, can play Bach, Beethoven on his guitar. He’s just a talented, talented guitarist. And we have that rock band and tonight is our practice night actually. So yes, they are my bandmates in more than several bands, you know?
Adam Schrader: Yeah, so how many bands do you guys actually have going on right now?
Jody Aguirre: We have our originals and we play covers. For R&B band we’ll do stuff like—I’m not sure if you’re familiar with The Gap Band or Earth, Wind and Fire. For example, one of the songs that we’re doing in our rock band is by a group called Highly Suspect called “My Name Is Human.” Really, really good song. But we’ll mix those covers with our originals as well during these sets that we do.
Adam Schrader: So what is your songwriting process?
Jody Aguirre: Basically, what I’ll do is I’ll write a poem and put music to poetry basically. Sometimes the music will come within a half an hour. And then from there, that’s your foundation. You know, the band gets together and you add their little nuances, the bass line, the drum line, et cetera et cetera. And then there sometimes where you work on a song for days, maybe even weeks, to try to get it to fit right and again you’ll change that song several times over sometimes.
Adam Schrader: Mr. Aguirre was audibly moved when he found out that his original compositions would be premiered on this podcast and that his family and friends on the outside would be able to gear him for the first time.
Jody Aguirre: They are? That’s beautiful man. Makes me emotional to think about that and think about that possibility because in this world here, the world that is prison, you feel as if you have no voice. And you want to communicate with people on whatever level you can—whether it’s vocabulary, or a song or writing. Because, I wrote a book. I wrote an autobiography about my life which I’m editing now. But just to reach people period is a beautiful thing and that’s awesome.
Adam Schrader: How do you hope that this podcast and your music is received outside of these prisons? Do you think it will have a big impact on what the general public thinks about these inmates?
Jody Aguirre: Most people out there, their opinion of prison is that everyone should be slammed down and eating spinach every three days and staring at the wall 24 hours. They don’t realize that their perception of penitentiary is supposed to be sheer punishment when that’s not what it’s supposed to be. When they realize that music is not only beneficial to the inmate population but it’s beneficial to the safety of the inmate population as well as staff, it relieves all those tensions. So, if it’s put in that perspective, the benefits of music on all levels, I think they would have a better understanding a better appreciation for it.
Adam Schrader: Do you have anybody on the outside that has ever heard your music before?
Jody Aguirre: Well I have three grandsons. My beautiful daughter, who’s 35 now, she was 11 when this happened when I was convicted. I was able to send her … I’ve been jail so long that I think CDs were the new fad. So we were able to send CDs to our families of cover songs we’d done in our band during these performances. And as of yet, I don’t think my daughter, for whatever reason, has been able to play it for my three grandsons yet. But that’s okay. I would love to have this opportunity for my loved ones to hear our music because they haven’t heard our originals. It was unusual being on the phone with someone other than a family member.
Adam Schrader: The last song we’re premiering in this inaugural episode of Sounds From the Slammer was written by Aguirre and sets a strong tone for the end of the group’s demo. The song, often sounding Pink Floyd-esque, showcases Aguirre’s affinity for classic rock. The song begins with a haunting harmonic keyboard riff before a heavily distorted electric guitar calls joins in the call and response, making up much of the song’s melodic structure. Aguirre performs keyboard and sings lead vocals. Joaquin Mares performs all guitars and bass on the chorus. Alex Linzy rounds out the ensemble with drums and bass on the melody. Here’s “Mystic Hustle.”
MYSTIC HUSTLE: click here for lyrics.
Adam Schrader: Thank you for listening to Sounds From the Slammer. Our executive producers are Adam Schrader and Angus Mordant. Our music was composed by David Glenney and Colton Crews. We'd like to thank Limon correctional staff for recording the inmates and providing access to interviews for us, as well as keeping America safe. We'd like to thank the inmates for letting us speak with them and air their music. You can catch our next episode on iTunes and Google Play. Visit our website, soundsfromtheslammer.com, or check out our social media for more information and additional content. Tune in next Friday for an episode featuring the ladies of Montana Women’s Prison.