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Letters from Lancaster Prison

Jessup Think
Jessup Think
Letters from Lancaster Prison

Musical guest Timothy John Stafford joins Mark to talk about his most recent EP Letters from Lancaster Prison. On the album Tim tells the stories of five different inmates serving a life sentence without parole. The songs cover themes of hope, redemption, justice, and grace.


Welcome to Jessup think I’m your host Mark Moore. And excited on the show today we have our very first musical guest Timothy john Stafford. Welcome to the show, Tim, thank you very much for having me in here. And I’m really excited because I think as our first musical guests that really like taking us up as a podcast like another notch Yeah,

I feel like that may be overselling me. Hey, I’m gonna do my part.

You’re a musical guest you have an album we’re gonna talk about Yeah, now I’m not overselling anything you know, and and you’re also the host or co host of Vox podcast with Mike Geary.

Yeah, I got hired on as the producer of that just trying to clean it up and edit the episodes and whatnot. And then slowly just got roped at work

your way into co hosts? Yeah. How long is that podcasts been going on?

I think that podcast has been on for three and a half years ish. somewhere around there. Yeah, we’re like 230 200 I think this week’s episode was 229.

That’s like 20 years in dog years. Old her podcast years. That’s good. Well, I like that. I like working your way in as producer. I did that in college. I just started playing, doing sound for a band. And then one year their bass player never came back. And I was like, I’m like, yeah, just where the notes again. Just point to him. And

I’ll play him on a YouTube story too. Like Bono was the he was like their manager. He wanted to be the band super bad. And they kept giving him different roles. Yeah. Finally, there’s like, Alright, man. Fine. Fine. You can work down there.

I guess so. Yeah. No. And they were probably like, what? 15 years old when they very not not a bad gig. You know, your first job ever.

And dog ears are like a million.

Yes. That is the truth and still going. So they are still going though going? Well, what are your most recent EP is is entitled letters from Lancaster prison. Yeah. And I’m really intrigued by just the story behind that album. How did that album kind of come about? And maybe your connection with Lancaster prison?

Yeah. So a couple years ago, I was getting my master’s degree. So I could come and teach at a prestigious institutions such as William Jessup,

right? Yeah, we failed to mention you also teach some English class right?

I am a pretty sound. Still sounds very weird to say that. But my professor, I am one who professors? Yeah. You Professor English. Yeah. Not well. But during my master’s degree program, I took a class that dealt with so Lancaster prison. I went to Cal State LA, okay, down in Los Angeles. And we won’t hold that against you. Thank you. Yeah, yeah, I was the odd one out. All my old enemy teams that we grew up with sports wise, are all la team. Yeah, it was awkward. But Cal State LA has one of the only accredited programs in a prison system in the state of California. Oh, wow. And it got founded by the professor there who’s now one of my good friends. And he basically was going into the prison started with him just going in and teaching a few classes in the prison. And then he just had worked it up to the state level to get it actually accredited. So they It was a bunch of men, of course, serving life without parole. Okay. And they, they earned the right through kind of just being, you know, not getting involved in violence or drugs or anything in the prison for like, most of them had been like, 10 years. I mean, they’ve been in there. All these guys have been there for a very long time. Yeah. And like, for example, one of the guys is the last he actually just got out, but he was the one of the last incarcerated men from the LA riots. Wow, from the early 90s. So just as a framework there, but yeah, so we were I took the class and the class was built around this idea of reading a bunch of shared texts with the the men in there and then kind of, we were helping them with their papers, editing their papers with them, and then corresponding with them and so that that would go on throughout the semester. And then at the end of the semester, the teacher said, Hey, you know, you guys need to do a, some kind of like a gorilla project where it’s like, either, you’re gonna go do a poetry reading, or you’re gonna facilitate some small event. It didn’t have to be anything crazy. But I, as I tend to do, I like to bite off a little bit more than I can chew and I just shot a music video for a friend. So I bartered some studio time, okay. And I say you only know what why don’t I, I have an idea. I’d like to record a record. In this case, the EP and asked the teachers like we gather a bunch of have a bunch of the men write their narratives, however they see their story, whatever it is, and bring them to me and I’m going to sort through them and try to find five that sparks something to write us. About and try to find five different themes. And so he brought me a manila folder full of like 20 or 30. Just handwritten narratives by a bunch of these guys. And I just went through them read through them for a while and then picked five and then wrote five songs and went into a studio with a live band and cut all the songs in like two days. And then that was that.

Oh, that’s great. Yeah. Well, first off, just with the style of it, too. I love the style of music is kind of I mean, I would kind of continue to like in the country.

Yeah, it’s kind of in there. It’s got some traditional country elements, which tend to make you more alternative, which is fun. Right, right. There’s some kind of Western sounds on there, too. But yeah,

definitely. Train slide ish guitar. Yeah, yeah. I like that. So so I was drawn in by the style.

Good. You never know countries either like you like it or don’t.

Right. And it’s definitely well, and that’s why I would consider this that’s why I would kind of say all country a little different than like, give a chance on the radio.

Give the chance guys. Oh, yeah. It’s very opposite of Country radio. Yeah,

exactly. Yeah. So and we won’t we we’re not trying to alienate our country listeners. But this is also just a, you know, a different style of country that I think is. That is that is nice. You heard it here first. That’s right. First, so for one. Yeah, I just love the kind of the style on that. And then I was also kind of drawn in. And it’s interesting to hear that. So you you got the stories from the men first. Yeah, had them kind of write it down. And then you took them and turn them into songs. And so I’d love to kind of jump into a couple of these tracks. And one and this EP is available on Spotify. It should be on every wherever you plan on Yeah, digital music. Yep,

it’s all over out there. There we go. And musics weird. It’s like having kids because you kind of like you put all this time and effort into it. And then you just release it into the world. You’re like good luck. Yeah. Like I hope people like you. I hope you do. Well. You’re like I like you. Yeah, I think you’re great. I like you. I’m just now it’s your turn but you never know there’s a bully around the corner that’s like you know what?

As your as a great description. It’s good for other artists listening that I would say any type of art you perhaps the

same way you you put all this life and love into it. And then it’s just like, all right now erupt everyone else. Yeah. Scary, scary world out there.

It’s a harsh world. But as we kind of look in, I’d love to one of them. That seems to be too on on. Spotify kind of has the most hits too. And I was drawn in kind of musically to it. But also lyrically to it was called the longest line. And it seems to be the story of Daniel. Can we Yeah, talk a little bit about your story. And

so I did, I did try. I did release that as a single. I’m doing air quotes for those of you who are not in this. And so Daniel was the guy that I worked with, he was the one who papers I kind of revise and edited. And then we wrote back and forth. And he was a writer and his story was really interesting. He I don’t want to get too graphic, and I don’t know how graphic I can get.

I mean, we can Yeah, it’s um, it’s a family show. But and you can be real, you can be real he,

he was he was a teenager, and he was hanging out with the more unsavory kid, kid who’d been involved in some had already been involved with some petty crime gang. And, and he, the kid, the other kid, was having problems with an abusive stepfather. And then Daniel was over there spending the night at the kids house, and the kid had said that he was going to inflict harm. Yeah, in a very all, you know, he was going to try to take the guy’s life. Yeah. Or maybe he’d called Daniel. And then Daniel said, to come over and try to talk him out of it, and then went to sleep and was under the impression that he had talked him down, and then got woken up in the middle of night that it had, he had in fact, taken the other man’s life. Oh, wow. And, and Daniel and asked Daniel, that he told me to help him take the like, deal with gas. Yeah, kind of clean up. Yeah. So he, he did that, you know, he was a teenager, right? flustered. He when you talk to him about it, he’s like, I know what I did, incorrectly. I know the part that I played in this and I’ve been I carry the remorse of that forever and right and whatnot. The stories got twisted in the aftermath. The kid told the police everywhere that Daniel did it. Whoa. So Daniel has been in prison for over 20 years now serving life, he’s still trying to prove his innocence. Yeah. You know, a lot of the men a lot. It’s interesting when you’re in there. So I’ve been in the prison now, multiple times. I’m halfway through shooting a documentary in there as well, because they’ve given us such good access to the actual prison. So it’s like we should bring cameras in here and try to tell the story of right because for me, what’s the most interesting thing is the education is offering Knees men a chance at being like, reformed, right? So restored? Yeah. So you know, a lot of us will talk about restorative justice often as a great buzzword or an idea. But I was like, this is interesting, because I’m actually seeing it happen in a tangible way, like education is brought in. You guys are earning degrees. And in 2016, we passed prop. And I want to say 57. But it’s been a few years now. But we proposition got past that allowed all these guys who are serving life without parole. Like, a chance at parole. Okay. Yeah, like, at least, you know, maybe a hearing or something. Yeah. So bunch of the guys that we work with have been released since then a ton of them. So those guys are all locked in for life. Yeah. Which, you know, everyone has different opinions on but in a lot of ways, it is a death sentence, because you’re sequestered and then you’re there until you die. Yeah. So that these guys have gotten out. While we were filming the documentary, like oh, now, you know, so and so is out so and so is out the teacher who is just this remarkable guy of Islam, Buddhist atheist, like, yeah, so you know, and he, he also volunteered to kind of be their probation officers, like instead of the house on the campus, okay, so a lot of the guys are coming out and living on the campus and continuing their education. And so it’s been very interesting. So Daniel, I actually met recently, I was in there, and I was able, he was in a meeting because we published a journal. That’s just the men’s writings. Oh, wow. And the program is called words uncaged. And you can, it’s all over the internet and stuff. But so I was in a meeting and I saw him for the first time. I was like, hey, Daniel is like, yeah, next to him. He’s like, Oh, yeah. So we had a weird moment because we had spoken so much via like, you know, letter writing and whatnot. Yeah. It’s a very surreal, very surreal thing and Lancaster’s, a very surreal Eric’s it’s right. It’s out in the wild in the desert. Right. And so it gets very, very hot and very, very cold and very isolated and flat, and just everything kind of feeds into the same narrative of isolation. Yeah. Yeah. So that song, this idea of kind of, you know, being at the end of the longest line, like he’s, he’s been continued, every time he’s up for parole, he gets pushed back. And so he’s just kind of been perpetually kind of locked in this thing. And, you know, he feels that he was unjustly incarcerated and unjustly persecuted or whatever. And so, and that was a lot of the narratives was, you know, not all of them. But

right. Yeah, I mean, that does seem to be like you’re saying maybe a common, you know, most maybe you guys are gonna be like, I didn’t do it. Yeah, but when you get to hear people and get to hear stories, and and try to understand to that, that effect of incarceration and the effect of isolation who in turn and yeah, it really is and and I think it’s what’s what is unique about this is giving these men a chance just to share their story. Absolutely. Yeah. I’m sure it from their perspective. And yeah, now has Daniel heard the song.

And he has they’ve all they I think all the men have heard it. And when I finished the record, I I sent at least those five guys I sent. I wrote them each a letter, and I with the lyrics of the song, kind of where I had landed with it. And yeah, and sent it to the gave it to all of them. And we did a we did a radio broadcast with this woman who has been working on prison reform for like 3040 years or something. She has her own little like NPR kind of radio show. So yeah, she’s involved and we and she was able to set it up to the guys calling from payphones into the show. Oh, wow. And, and so someone that I think they played some of the music over the speakers, I can’t remember exactly how Yeah, yeah. In the prison. Yeah. It’s very Yeah, very interesting. Very, not something I ever intended to be involved in, but have gotten very involved in it.

Yeah. There was another track on here called the architect. Yeah. And about door tell,

yes. Door tell this is a great. So this is a different version of a story. So he, he’s a he was a young African American guy, he was in high school, he went to his high school counselor and said, Hey, I want to go to college. And the counselor said, I’m sorry, I don’t think your college material. And and so he This was in the prime early 80s or so mid, mid early 80s. And so he ended up getting the other option that he had available to him was getting involved with selling drugs. And so he ended up working on the streets and got married, had a kid and then there was a drug deal that went wrong, went bad and his wife ended up getting shot during the drug deal. He didn’t pull the trigger. He didn’t actually hurt anybody, but he became an accomplice to the murder and and going to prison for life. Yeah. And so his story is so interesting because he has, he has a daughter who he hasn’t really seen and some alerts in the end of the song like I think it’s been a while since I’ve looked at it, but Yeah. The last lines of the song are like, Father forgive me, by noon will not want to do. Daughter, please forgive me, because I longed to be there with you. Yeah. And so he had it seemed that she got raised without both parents because one passed and I was incarcerated, and then, but he’s earned two or three degrees in prison. Oh, wow. Like he just like, it’s so it’s so heartbreaking because you can see how much he wanted this education, and that has now just continually pursued it and has continually bettered himself. And I think he’s even I think he’s in seminary now. If I remember correctly, yeah, yeah. It’s just a wild ride. And he’s just like, he’s so calm. And he’s very articulate. And he knows that he made mistakes, obviously. And he and he carries, like, the weight of a lot of those mistakes, just with his wife and the connection with his daughter and whatnot. But yeah, I his has always been such a great, not a great sorry, that’s the wrong way to say that it has been a very it’s a great example of what the program is, like, you know, it tends to be a lot of minorities who have been kind of pushed away or grown up in communities where there’s not a lot of opportunity. And right, so you watch guys like door tell. They’re just like I’m making it happen. Like I’m in the worst possible situation that you could imagine, right? And I’m, and I’m, and I’m going for good. I’m going, I’m going I’m going so yeah, he’s been he’s cool. I met him too. I met all those guys. Actually, at this point, I

think. Yeah, that’s so great. And, and what’s interesting about this, too, is that this being part of like a school, right, kind of assignment almost. Yeah. And not necessarily coming from a faith perspective. But kind of as you were there, and as you kind of hear the stories, what were some of the things you learned kind of our How did this influence your own faith? And how was your faith journey kind of during?

Yeah, a ton. I you know, I grew up a white middle class, hetero Christian male, right. So I had all the boxes checked for being able to, for my life to have been fairly simple. Yeah, yeah. For me, the I mean, the guy walking into the prison is, is it’s a big kind of slap in the face or not a slap in the face. But it’s, you feel very out of place. You feel that you feel the brevity of that when you’re in there. Yeah. Like I was filming interviews in the cellblock and going into the cells, and you just you, you put yourself into this tiny little closet that you live in for 3040 years, right. And it’s a wild wakening. I guess it was kind of the Yeah. And so for me, it’s constantly wrestling with this idea of like the imago dei and that’s kind of what was always kind of in my head at every time I go in, there’s like everyone has been made in this image of God, that God was intentional with that kind of that that plan on that idea. And so you’re in, you’re in this prison, you’re meeting these guys who, whose lives have taken drastically different turns drastically different. That, you know, a lot of just, they’re in different places. But they’re all these guys. These are all people that God like intentionally made and created. Yeah. So this idea of, of who is beyond redemption, is anyone beyond redemption, right? Obviously, that conversation is different. If you are the family who has had the crime committed against you, right, your your, your emotional vantage point is gonna be dramatically different than mine. And so you carry all that because I meet those families as well. I met the prisoners, families, I’ve met families who have been affected by the prisoners. And so all of that’s real, right. It all exists. It’s that’s all real energy, and thought and emotion and pain, that all exists in this thing. So being intentional with how you like, try to sort through that stuff. Where is God? How is God moving? I’m not going in there and just being like, hey, do you know Jesus, right? There’s plenty of people doing that. Yeah. And we’re kind of going in and being like, hey, I want to help encourage you in in bettering your situation and earning this education and a lot of the guys are Christian. There’s a song in there called the burden of hope. Yeah. That’s not the one yeah. burden hope by about jack. Yeah. And he became, he was like, his story was nuts. And he was in gangs at a really young age and saw his best friend Mona like 15 get shot in the head of a gang altercation and his whole life was violent and led to this place and then he found Jesus in jail and he’s like, the most peaceful person there and yeah, he wrote me this long letter was like, Hey, brother, like bomb deleted it. And, you know, we had never met but we he got the song and he was just like, we had a connection through this idea of who Jesus was and who faith how faith plays in that and whatnot. So it’s really I mean, the end of that song just kind of ends with us. Repeating of like, I sing prayers or something like that. And it’s just picturing jack in the prison, singing these songs. And just finding God in the midst of the worst, you know, the worst environment, the worst circumstances and whatnot. So, I don’t know, man, it’s like, it is like a collision of humanity right in there. And it’s all just tightly in there. And these tightly fenced in locations and a lot of ego and a lot of pain and right. A lot of people looking for hope and peace. And yeah. So it is really kind like a microcosm of the world. Right, smashing this little.

Yeah, really? It really is. Yeah. One of my one of my favorite stories or parables that Jesus gives is in Matthew 25 parable, the sheep and the goats. I believe cake also wrote a song about that, but I have a little bit of different interpretation, although actually they get kind of the gist of what the songs done. local band, yeah, let’s say Sacramento ban. But I love what you know. And that’s kind of the famous one where it’s the you know, if you if you fed me, clothed me, but I’ve always been struck by one of the lines was, I was in prison, and you came in to visit me. Yeah. And always. And there’s a there’s actually a local, homeless kind of outreach, kind of the kind of call themselves a survival Center here in Sacramento. And they base everything they do off of this Matthew 25. I love that. Yeah, they close they feed, and they visit in prison. Right. And they, and and I just thought, you know, as we were kind of getting into this conversation, I just drawn back to that, that that, that does seem to be an element, maybe within the church that we kind of read that. And we don’t necessarily see how that powerful, powerful kind of nature of if I’m in prison, meaning I’ve been isolated, I’ve been set apart, mostly, maybe because of things that I’ve done. Right, yeah. But then the power of someone reaching out and visiting, like, and, and, and like your professor just kind of maybe reaching out to them, and saying, Hey, we want to hear your stories. We want to give you the opportunity of education. And what’s great about this, this parable, and it’s kind of like what you just said, you kind of snuck it in. When highlight you said finding God there in the prison, right? Yeah. Often we approach maybe ministry or things like that. And we would be like, we want to take God to the prison. Yeah, we want to take Jesus to the prison. But actually, in this story, Jesus saying, if I’m there, and if you help me, that’s you that here if you help them, and that’s you helping them, man, that verses come up three times in the last week. Oh, there you go. That’s telling. Yeah, I got

that. And I, because for me, you know, that’s explicit. Right? God, right. Jesus, like, I want you to do this. Yes. There’s no like, gray. Right. Yeah, what exactly. There’s other things that we focus on often with in the church that are not so black and white. This is a very, like, straightforward issue. And God also kind of spoke to the same in the Old Testament. Yeah, spoke to some of the same thing. Right. Well, yeah. And so I was thinking about that verse. Just yesterday, actually think we were talking to a guest on our podcast about it. And it just randomly came up. And I was just like, I’m so am I that has been on my heart for a couple years now. Yeah. Like if the church just focused on those things, the difference the church can make in the world for like, we’re going to do the things that just that Jesus really was like, right, bom bom bom. Right, man, what a difference the church globally could make. Yeah. And then also that, you know, that’s pretty close to right before he dies, and then rises and then gives a great commission. It’s like, Well, yeah. Looking at those all kind of like, in a linear context, like, hey, do this, do this, do this. And then he comes back and says, hey, go and make disciples now know how to do it. Yeah. That seems pretty clear to me. I don’t know. Or God’s trying to say something to me through that stuff lately. Yeah, you thrown it at me a bunch of you came in. Pay attention?

I think it is. I think it’s so important. I mean, because it it really is looking at some of these clear things that Jesus said to do. And again, with the perspective of this isn’t me taking Jesus to these people? This is me actually seeing Jesus in them partnering up Yeah. And and I agree wholeheartedly with you that if the church just literally and simply focused in on these things, so much would would spread from that Oh, man, but again, it just kind of gives shape to that power. And so thanks a lot for coming on the show and sharing this Yeah, sharing the CPE encourage everyone to kind of listen to it and actually as we kind of close out we’re going to be able to let you as listeners hear kind of I think the first track your longest line and so as we close it out hope you enjoy this song and you can check out Tim on Timothy john Stafford calm and here’s some of his other music. He has couple other albums never man unless are miracles. Oh yeah, you can check those. Remember those albums? But thanks again and thanks just for the reminder of the power of people story. Yeah, and just giving them a chance to share it. And how men were called to were called to see Jesus and everyone especially those who are hurting those marginalized folks. Yeah, yeah. And, and man if we can get our eyes tuned to see that we’ll start seeing Jesus in our world. And Jesus is smart dude. I don’t know I’m just throwing that out there Yeah, hey, I think that that’s a good last night. Jesus was a smart dude. We hope you enjoy this song as well. Where whereas on the hall nine I didn’t know where friend is a friend who stories tear down the wall. Acid I’ll just talk now my hands bloody red. No way. Five data analysts. We heard his mom scream. See live streaming gear at the end

here at the end

Thank you for listening to Jessup. Think Be sure to follow us on Twitter at Jessup think we would love to hear your thoughts on the episode and engage with any questions you have. Our aim is to provide a framework for further reflection and deeper exploration of these important topics. You can also help the show by leaving a review on iTunes. These reviews help the podcast reach new listeners. Until next time, I’m Mark Moore and this is Jessup.

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