In the dim light of a cold, rainy December afternoon, the Washington, D.C. Central Detention Facility stands as a dull colossus at the edge of the city’s grimy southeast corridor. Situated on a campus of similarly weathered municipal structures, the hulking flesh-tone edifice’s exterior has been worn dark gray in splotches under its boxy windows, a visual testament to a troubled history that has included rampant overcrowding, health department citations for roach and rat infestation, and an occasional lack of running water since it opened in 1976. The building is bunkered on one side by a 30-foot wall topped with razor wire and watched over by a massive guard tower.
Getting to the prison’s administrative offices requires negotiating a maze of brightly lit, white-brick hallways, being buzzed through a series of clanging metal doors, and passing by several holding cells filled with bored prisoners. Here, just down the hall from the prison chapel, Dennis Sobin shuffles into a small, windowless office with a stack of documents and music books clutched under his arm, a tattered orange jumpsuit hanging loosely on his gaunt frame, and a pair of black dress loafers on his feet. Sobin has been at the D.C. jail for more than a month and isn’t up for release until mid-April, but on this afternoon, his bright mood stands in stark contrast to the oppressive dreariness all around him. He drops the books on a desk and holds up a thick sheaf of handwritten notes.
“I’ll show you some things I’m doing here, just to show you the volume of what I’ve accomplished already,” he says, running a thumb through his papers. “This is 300 pages of a book I’m writing called Artists in Prison: Understanding and Helping Them. I’m going to do a second book while I’m here called From Prison to the Kennedy Center: Ex-Prisoners and Prisoners in the National Spotlight.”
Sobin, 65, has spent the last six years running the Prisons Foundation, an organization he founded to promote music and arts programs for inmates. He conceived it while incarcerated in Florida and Virginia from 1992 to 2003 after being found guilty on charges of sexual performance of a child, racketeering, and bank fraud, all of which he denies to this day.
“I got there and said, ‘Now I’m here, what do I want to do?’ ” When Sobin speaks, he leans sharply forward. His eyes, sunk deep into his head behind a bulbous nose, dart around vigorously. “I had always been a guitar strummer and loved music, but said, ‘This is an opportunity to learn seriously.’ There were lifers there who were able to duplicate Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton.” Sobin dedicated himself to guitar in prison, recording a CD of his songs there and giving lessons to other inmates. He noticed the calming effect music had on otherwise troubled souls. “If you’re creating music, you’re dealing with personal issues. The blues and rock’n’roll are a way of expressing your feelings and resolving your problems. Your whole personality can change.”
From behind bars, Sobin finished a memoir, Doing Time in Waltz Time: A Memoir of Ten Years in Prison Playing and Teaching Music, and upon his release, started the Prisons Foundation, on whose board sits activist-writer Paul Krassner and historian Howard Zinn. Kevin Horrocks, the foundation’s resource director, did two years in prison and was inspired by Sobin’s tale.
“He’s the best living example of the ways art, and in this case music, can salvage people,” says Horrocks.
Among other activities, the Prisons Foundation sells the artwork of prisoners through the Prison Art Gallery in D.C. and puts on an annual show at the Kennedy Center featuring music, poetry, and drama written and performed by prisoners and ex-prisoners. Sobin has also played numerous benefit gigs in conjunction with organizations such as Jail Guitar Doors, founded by British agit-folkie Billy Bragg, which donates musical instruments to prisons. Sobin is currently serving six months for violating an order of protection filed by his son, who works at City Hall in D.C. Sobin was arrested, he says, when he came to City Hall to testify at a public hearing on alternatives to incarceration.
“I’ve actually written an operetta while I’ve been here called Busted at City Hall, based on my case,” he says. “It’s a comedy because what happened to me, you just wouldn’t believe it was being taken seriously.”
Read the entire story in the May issue of SPIN, on newsstands now!