Two hundred inmates encircled Clark Bartram inside the prison yard as he
picked up a microphone to explain his mission. “We are here to share with you that you are very special, you do matter, and God still loves you no matter what,” said Bartram, an unlikely proselytizer with his bleached blond hair, chiseled cheekbones, and bulging biceps. Bartram is actually a well-known bodybuilding model, but on this 90-degree afternoon he had come to Rikers Island to emcee a Christian rock concert.
Yellow tape labeled “Crime Scene—Do Not Cross” stretched between basketball backboards and garbage cans to create a makeshift stage inside this yard at the George R. Vierno Center. Bartram paced behind the tape, while the inmate audience stretched out on the benches along the yard’s perimeter. As the bodybuilder rattled off recent items on his résumé—including posing for the cover of June’s Muscle & Fitness magazine—the prisoners tried to stay cool by draping their T-shirts over their heads.
“Everywhere I go, I blow up a hot-water bottle,” Bartram told the crowd. “I don’t sing. I don’t dance. This is the only thing I do.” An electric guitar riff pounded through the two speakers propped atop poles behind Bartram as he began exhaling into the neck of a rubber bottle. His huffing and puffing lasted for nearly a minute before the bottle exploded. A dozen prisoners clapped.
So began a recent show designed to promote Operation Starting Line, a new campaign to bring prison fellowship programs into every U.S. prison by 2005. The ex-con behind this movement is Charles Colson, an aide to former president Richard Nixon who went to prison in the wake of Watergate. Twenty-four years ago, Colson founded Prison Fellowship Ministries, which is now the best-known program of its kind. The organization sends volunteers into prisons in 88 countries, and tries to reduce recidivism by teaching about God.
Operation Starting Line is Colson’s most ambitious effort to date. His group has joined with 14 other organizations—including Billy Graham’s Evangelistic Association and the Promise Keepers—and plans to contribute $15 million over the next three years to this campaign. In late June, Operation Starting Line came to New York City, where 15 staff members, 28 performers, and 300 volunteers visited 15 jails. Besides staging concerts, they passed out Bibles, played basketball with prisoners, visited cellblocks, and encouraged inmates to attend the group’s ongoing Bible-study classes.
Prison Fellowship Ministries has staged annual concerts at Rikers Island for the last three years. These Christian road shows regularly star guitarists, comedians, athletes, rappers, and ex-cons with religious testimonials. One of their star attractions is Rocco Morelli, who tells a story of working as a Mafia hit man before finding God. But Morelli was performing at another jail today. So this afternoon’s lineup featured two singers, a guitarist, and Bartram.
Though he’s never been a prisoner, Bartram believes his muscles help him win over his captive audience. “I have a common denominator with these guys because everybody loves to work out and with that comes a certain respect,” explained the bodybuilder, who lives in San Diego. “I use that gift as a hook. If I was a normal guy off the street, it would take a lot longer to get their attention. Because I am who I am in the world, I get their attention a lot faster.”
On this afternoon, Bartram certainly got the attention of two inmates, who call themselves Red Ghost and X-Man. “Why do we want to come out here and see a guy blow up a douche—or whatever it is?” said Red Ghost, 22, who recently finished a four-year stint in state prison for robbery. “What was so significant about that—except that he can huff and puff so good?”
“It’s a waste of time,” said X-Man, 22, who has made three prior trips as a prisoner to Rikers Island. “They brought us out to listen to gospel songs? I’d rather be sleeping.”
“Do you think we want to be listening to this crap?” Red Ghost shouted over the rock music. “We listen to Biggie Smalls, Jay-Z, and Tupac.” To prove his point, Red Ghost pointed to the several dozen young men leaning against one wall of the prison yard. “Do you see them swaying?”
Indeed, none of the men were swaying. They gossiped, they played chess, and a few actually listened to the music of Monty Lee Kimble, a Nashville musician with cowboy boots and a pink guitar. Bartram introduced Kimble to the crowd as a former member of UB40, but the musician admits that is a stretch. Back in 1980, before he quit using drugs and found God, Kimble used to perform with the Extremes, a little-known band that opened for UB40.
Gerard Brockington, a 25-year-old inmate from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, stood in the shade as he watched this show. “I think it’s a blessing that people take time out of their lives to spread the word of God,” said Brockington, who is accused of selling drugs. The inmate keeps a Bible in his cell and describes himself as a “backsliding Christian.” But the blue identification card clipped to his shirt announces that he is Jewish.
Like many Rikers prisoners, Brockington identifies himself as Jewish in order to get kosher food, the only meals not prepared by inmates in the jails’ kitchens. “The kosher meals are healthiest,” Brockington explained. “They come in sterile with plastic covering so it’s really hard for someone to spit in it.”
Nearby, Marc Sanon was, like every inmate around him, playing the role of music critic. “I know God is good and everything,” said the 27-year-old from Crown Heights, Brooklyn. “But if they’re going to bring in a show, they should bring something more exciting.” Sanon has seen a lot of concerts during his 12 stints on Rikers, including shows by Rah Digga and Wu-Tang Clan. While he said he liked some of today’s music, he pronounced the show “boring.”
Nevertheless, the prisoner, who is Muslim, left the concert with a copy of Operation Starting Line’s 32-page booklet, “Running the Race: A One-Week Introduction to Christian Life.” Why did he take this literature? About the volunteer who handed it to him, Sanon says, “I was just trying to talk to the young lady to get her number.”