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A raised hand in the foreground as audience members listen to gospel music
Photo by James Barr on Unsplash

In March, the Christian worship group Maverick City Music and gospel singing legend Kirk Franklin came to the Everglades Correctional Institution (ECI), in Florida, to produce a live recording of a new album set for release this month.

This was the first live album ever recorded at ECI. It happened on a small basketball court where guys typically play three on three.

According to Jordan Moyer, a statewide volunteer coordinator with the Florida Department of Corrections, this was one of the largest events in the department’s history, with hundreds in attendance.

“I came with Maverick City to share in greatness with the forgotten of society,” said singer Franklin.

He added that he wanted to collaborate on this album because of Maverick City’s influence and vision.

“They are changing the climate and culture in America,” Franklin said. “I wanted to connect with the brotherhood and serve with their great plans to become bigger as a brother and a family.”

Franklin, who has friends and family who are in prison, said that it was a great honor and pleasure to bring back a message of hope and connect with incarcerated people.

This was the first album these powerhouses of the Christian music industry recorded together in a prison. But some of the band's members have witnessed the results of mass incarceration firsthand.

At the age of 10, Tony Brown, one of the group’s co-founders, met his mother while she was in prison; he grew up not knowing his father. He said it's hard to ignore your past, and doing things like this helps him remain authentic while honoring his roots.

Brown, with his co-founder Jonathan Jay, made the decision to come to ECI after contacting Jake Bodine, CEO and president of God Behind Bars.

Maverick City Music supports prison reform through their nonprofit and works to change the perceptions of incarcerated men and women. The group views this work as a tribute to their family and friends who have been impacted by mass incarceration.

Maverick City Music's humble beginnings started with a four-song album released on the internet in 2019; today they have generated an international following.

“We honestly didn't expect anyone to listen to it at first,” Maverick City Music co-founder Brown said.

The first song the group performed perfectly captured the moment, with Franklin singing gospel and playing the piano. He turned to the men standing directly behind him and sang while shaking hands and showing everyone near him love.

“Sing it from your spirit,” said Franklin. “Sing it like you're a soldier.”

Watching Franklin interact with the crowd and sing choruses with his iconic voice, it was clear he was having fun. He asked the crowd at one point if it was okay to dance a bit, and invited a couple men into the circle to show off their two-step.

Throughout the event, Jay and Brown could be seen closely monitoring the production and moving through the crowded stage area to make adjustments.

“This should serve as a reminder to everyone that no matter how far you've gone, or what you have done, that you are never alone,” Jay said.

Speaking to the audience, Bodine explained how ECI was the first place that came to mind when Maverick City Music presented the idea of recording an album in prison.

The display of brotherhood and oneness from the audience during the performance showed why ECI may have been Bodine's first thought. At times during the event, men were holding their hands high and singing such lyrics as, “Jireh, you are enough.”

The artists' humility and genuine love radiated through the crowd.

Every member of the production — the artists, producers, even the cameramen — would stop and speak with anyone to answer their questions. Often their conversations would end with hugs and handshakes that appeared as natural as if they were old friends.

The band played brand new material and old favorites. One of the new songs went like this: “You made me in your light, you made me and you don't make mistakes.”

Music videos from the new album will be available on prison tablets soon through the Pando app, according to God Behind Bars president Bodine. The Pando app provides free Christian digital content to prisoners in Florida.

Incarcerated musician Chad Robison was filled with emotion as he described what it felt like to sing with the background choir. “Prison tends to dehumanize you,” he said. “So it felt good to be treated like a human being for just one day.”

Thirty minutes into the performance, Franklin asked everyone to “find someone you haven't talked to in a while and tell them, ‘Brother, I love you.’”

A sea of men in blue embraced one another, and did just that.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Frank Morse is a self-taught portraitist, writer and public speaker who has been incarcerated since he was 23 years old. He is the president of the Draft Pick’s Gavel Club, an affiliate of Toastmasters International, staff writer for the Endeavor Newsletter, a prison publication at Everglades Correctional Institution, a peer facilitator in the Horizon Faith and Character Program dorm, and facilitator of the Art Expressions Program. He is incarcerated in Florida.