The following script is from “60 Minutes Presents: Behind Bars,” which aired on Feb. 26, 2017.
Good evening. I’m Bill Whitaker. Welcome to 60 Minutes Presents. Tonight: Behind bars. We’ll trace the prison escape route of the world’s most notorious narcotics king. Meet three people who never should have been imprisoned in the first place, and hear liberating harmonies from decidedly unliberated musicians.
First up, the notorious narco known as “El Chapo” who has achieved one of his greatest aspirations: he is the most famous drug lord of all time.
And now, El Chapo, whose real name is Joaquin Guzman, is perhaps the most famous drug lord behind bars. Since Mexico spirited him to New York last month, Chapo has spent 23 hours of every day in isolation. He’s awaiting trial in a Brooklyn federal court on dozens of charges that could keep him in prison for the rest of his life.
We first told you about Guzman in 2014 when he was captured after 13 years on the run. We told you then that El Chapo, Spanish for “Shorty,” was on Forbes’ list of billionaires and had earned an outsized reputation for his worldwide smuggling empire, his ruthless brutality and most of all, for his daring getaways -- like the one in 2015, when he vanished from a maximum-security Mexican prison through one of his trademark escape tunnels. After El Chapo’s stunning prison break, many thought he’d never get caught again. But he was. How? You’re about to see.
Bill Whitaker: Where in the pantheon of drug traffickers, drug lords, does El Chapo fall?
Peter Vincent: El Chapo resides at the very top of that hierarchy.
Peter Vincent was a senior official and legal adviser of both the Justice Department and Homeland Security during the international manhunt for Guzman. He says after the daring escape in July 2015, he became almost delusional.
Bill Whitaker: What precipitated his downfall?
Peter Vincent: He became drunk on his own wine. He started to believe the hype that he was special, that he was almost a demigod, that he was something truly magical. And he became so incredibly arrogant that he thought he was untouchable.
Jim Dinkins agrees. As chief of Homeland Security investigations, he was part of the U.S.-Mexico task force that nabbed El Chapo in 2014.
Jim Dinkins: He knew how he was captured last time. So he had the upper hand, right. He had all the cards in his hand to go off into the sunset and to learn from his mistake. But he just couldn’t help himself. And he remained in the public eye.
After his first escape from prison in 2001, Guzman virtually disappeared from sight for 13 years. But not this time.
Jim Dinkins: Here he gets out of prison, and he’s on the road being spotted at this place having you know, drinks, and this place, you know-- with his family members.
Bill Whitaker: He invited Sean Penn, and the actress Kate del Castillo to come in to see him.
Jim Dinkins: Yeah.
Bill Whitaker: Did Mexican law enforcement know that these two actors were going in to see El Chapo?
Jim Dinkins: Oh, absolutely. They knew that sh-- where Sean was gonna go, when he was gonna land. They knew right away.
How did they know? Because they were listening in on the cartel’s communications and watching. Mexican and U.S. law enforcement reformed the task force that caught El Chapo the last time.
They were tracking not just Guzman, but everyone in his inner circle including his cook. And everyone his lieutenants contacted including Sean Penn.
Bill Whitaker: Did he become sloppy?
Jim Dinkins: Definitely. There was more sightings of him in the last six months than there was in the first-- last 10 years of before he was captured in 2014.
Bill Whitaker: After he escaped the last time you told us that you were not confident that he would ever be captured again.
Jim Dinkins: Yeah.
Bill Whitaker: That El Chapo had become a smarter criminal. Did you overestimate his intelligence?
Jim Dinkins: I truly did. Here he had over a year in prison. I presumed he was using that same amount of time to think about how he was going to be-- remain a fugitive for the rest of his life.
Mexican officials told us only 20 days after his escape, the marines picked up on Guzman’s trail.
Peter Vincent: They created an even smaller team of Mexican marines, a search bloc. And they focused on the prize at hand, that was capturing El Chapo Guzman alive, if they-- absolutely could.
Their first opportunity came in October 2015, just days after Sean Penn’s visit. The marines told us they waited because they didn’t want the American actor caught in the crossfire. A team of marines approached one of El Chapo’s mountain top ranches by jungle road, while another group of commandos flew in by helicopter.
Bill Whitaker: What went wrong on that October mission?
Peter Vincent: As I understand it, despite all of El Chapo Guzman’s bravado of being a macho, very powerful man, he was running with a child in his arms.
Bill Whitaker: A human shield-- a baby as a shield?
Peter Vincent: That-- that’s the only way-- that one can rationally see it.
So once again, El Chapo got away. In December 2015, intelligence led the marines to this house in the sleepy coastal town of Los Mochis in northern Sinaloa. Wiretap intercepts talked about a visit planned by “grandma and aunt”-- code names for El Chapo and his lieutenant, known as “Cholo Ivan.”
The marines watched the house for a month as painters and construction crews came and went then on the morning of Thursday, January 7th, 2016, “grandma” finally showed up.
An assault force quickly moved into position nearby. That evening, someone in the house called out for a large order of tacos and this armored truck left to go pick up the food. Chapo was having a party.
Peter Vincent: For an incredibly savvy, clever, almost a criminal genius that El Chapo Guzman was, he ultimately was done in by very simple tastes.
Bill Whitaker: What do you mean?
Peter Vincent: Tacos, tequila, and chicas.
At 4:40 a.m., in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, January 8th, 2016, the marines began battering down the gate of Chapo’s safe house. We’ve concealed the identities of the commando leaders for their safety.
Bravo: So when we first-- en-- knock on the door of this house, the shooting started.
A fierce gun battle erupted. The first marine through the door was shot in the arm.
Bill Whitaker: I watched the videotape. It’s very intense.
Alpha: Chapo’s people inside the house were firing high-caliber rounds-- grenades. So it was like a warzone.
The marines moved methodically through the house. Chapo’s henchmen retreated up the stairs. Just inside the door, one gunman lay dead. Down the hall, four more taken prisoner and the commandos quickly check a walk-in closet covered with full-length mirrors.
Up the stairs the marines find two women, one of them the cook, cowering on the bathroom floor. Outside the house more commandos fought it out with gunmen who fled across the roof tops.
When it was over, there were five cartel members dead and six in custody, but once again, Chapo with Cholo Ivan had vanished.
A couple of days later, the marines took us to the safe house in Los Mochis in an armed convoy. Here, just inside the gate, a pool of blood where the marine was shot.
Bill Whitaker: “Sangre. Blood.”
And inside the door, more bloodstains, the walls pockmarked with bullet holes and the scars of exploding shrapnel. And remember that walk-in closet? The mirrors masked a hidden door.
Bill Whitaker: Behind the secret door, the entrance to one of El Chapo’s trademark tunnels. It’s connected to a network of storm drains and sewers.
It was 45 minutes before the marines found Chapo’s escape route and that morning the marines gave chase.
Alpha: We intensified the search inside the tunnels, opening the manhole covers, and inserting people in those sewers.
Then it started raining hard.
Bravo: After 20 minutes of rain, we thought the Chapo may-- may-- drown in the sewers because of the high level of the water.
Bill Whitaker: So he popped up out of the manhole right in the middle of a busy street.
Bravo: That was his only option.
Bill Whitaker: This is where he came out. He popped up the manhole cover. It’s about a half mile from the house, straight down that road.
Look carefully at this security camera footage from the gas station across the street. At 8:55 a.m., four hours after the first shots were exchanged -- right there, you can see Chapo and Cholo Ivan climbing out of the sewer and then in this cell phone video, you can see them carjack a white VW Jetta and speed away.
The fugitives got only three blocks before the Jetta broke down so, they jacked a second car, a red Ford Focus, but only a couple of miles out of town that car broke down. Within minutes, the Federal Emergency Center got two reports of hijacked vehicles. On the highway out of town, the marines found the Ford, already on the bed of a tow truck. But no sign of Chapo or his lieutenant. They had been picked up by the federal police and taken to a nearby motel.
Bill Whitaker: What were they doing in the backseat of the police car?
Alpha: They weren’t talking. They were relaxed. But they looked confused.
No one knows why the federal police took Chapo to the motel instead of jail, but Peter Vincent has a theory.
Peter Vincent: And El Chapo undoubtedly said, “One, you let me go now and I will make you wealthier beyond your wild imaginations. “ If you should choose to decline my most generous offer I am not only going to kill you but I am going to rape and kill your wife and your daughters and I’m going to torture your sons.
Bill Whitaker: He has behaved like that in the past?
Peter Vincent: He has behaved like that virtually his entire criminal career.
Bill Whitaker: Bribes and threats.
Peter Vincent: Bribes and threats, bribes and bullets. And luckily the Mexican marines showed up, realized what was going on and took control of the situation.
Chapo was flown to Mexico City for booking. He was paraded before reporters and returned to Altiplano, the same prison from which he’d escaped in July 2015.
Peter Vincent: This time, he is rotated from cell to cell to cell to cell. Guards are circulated every 15 minutes, through whatever cell he happens to be occupying on that particular day.
Soon after Chapo’s arrest, the U.S.-Mexico task force captured another two dozen Sinaloa cartel members.
Peter Vincent: It sends an incredibly powerful message to current kingpins, to future narcotraffickers that: “You may run, you may hide but ultimately this multinational force will track you down from the highest mountains or the deepest, darkest jungles, or through stinking sewers of towns and cities anywhere in the world, and bring you to justice.”
Life After Death Row
About 10 times a month now, an innocent person is freed from an American prison. They’re exonerated, sometimes after decades, because of new evidence, new confessions or the forensic science of DNA. There is joy the day that justice arrives, but we wondered, what happens the day after? You’re about to meet three people who have returned to life from unjust convictions. As Scott Pelley first reported last year, one of them, Ray Hinton, was on death row. He remembers, too vividly, the Alabama electric chair and the scent that permeated the cell block when a man was met by 2,000 volts. Hinton waited his turn for nearly 30 years until April 2015.
That’s when Ray Hinton stepped out of the shadow of execution. Taking the first steps that he chose for himself since 1985.
Scott Pelley: What was that moment like?
Ray Hinton: As though, I was walking on clouds. I wanted to get away in case they changed they mind. You know.
Scott Pelley: You still didn’t believe it.
Ray Hinton: I was not going to allow myself to really believe that I was free until I was actually free.
Free to visit his mother who went to her grave believing her son would be executed. The cemetery was Hinton’s first destination. And he was startled by a world that had moved on without him.
Ray Hinton: We headed toward the graveyard and a voice come on and said, “At two point so many miles turn right.” And I said, “What the hell? Who is that?” And he said his GPS tracker. I knew I didn’t see no white lady get in that car. I wanted to know how did she get in that car and what is she doing in this car. Man, come on.
Any voice tended to be a surprise; on death row, Hinton spent most of every day, alone.
Scott Pelley: After 30 years inside, mostly by yourself, did you worry about coming back out into the world?
Ray Hinton: You get out and you just out. If you don’t have a place to live or money or whatever, you ask yourself, “What am I gonna do?” But my best friend stuck by me for 30 years. And he had already told me “Whenever you get out, you come live with me and my wife.”
Scott Pelley: What did you have to learn after you got out?
Ray Hinton: I’m still learning. I’m still learning that I can take a bath every day. I’m still learning that I don’t have to get up at 3 o’clock in the morning and eat breakfast. I’m still learning that-- life is not always what we think it is.
Ray Hinton’s life was never what he thought it would be after 1985 when he was misidentified by a witness who picked him out of a mug shot book. His picture was in there after a theft conviction. When police found a gun in his mother’s house, a lieutenant told him that he’d been arrested in three shootings including the murders of two restaurant managers.
Ray Hinton: I said, “You got the wrong guy.” And he said, “I don’t care whether you did it or don’t.” He said, “But you gonna be convicted for it. And you know why?” I said, “No.” He said, “You got a white man. They gonna say you shot him. Gonna have a white D.A. We gonna have a white judge. You gonna have a white jury more than likely.” And he said, “All of that spell conviction, conviction, conviction.” I said, “Well, does it matter that I didn’t do it?” He said, “Not to me.”
The lieutenant denied saying that. But Hinton was convicted at age 30. He was 57 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9 to zero that his defense had been ineffective. A new ballistics test found that the gun was not the murder weapon.
Ray Hinton: Thirty years ago a judge proudly stood up and said, “I sentence you to die.” Thirty years later no one had the decency to say, “Mr. Hinton, we sorry for...uh...we sorry for what took place.” No one have said it.
Scott Pelley: What did the State of Alabama give you to help you get back up on your feet?
Ray Hinton: They dropped all charges and that was it.
Scott Pelley: No money?
Ray Hinton: No.
Scott Pelley: No suit of clothes?
Ray Hinton: Nothing. No.
And that is where many states are failing the growing number of exonerated prisoners. It turns out in Alabama if Ray Hinton had committed murder and was released on parole, he would have been eligible for job training, housing assistance and a bus ticket home. But most states offer no immediate help to the innocent who’s convictions can be embarrassing because of misconduct or incompetence by police or prosecutors.
Bryan Stevenson: You can’t traumatize someone, try to kill someone, condemn someone, lock someone down for 30 years and not feel some responsibility for what you’ve done.
Attorney Bryan Stevenson worked on Ray Hinton’s case for 16 years. Stevenson started the Equal Justice Initiative, one of a growing number of legal organizations overturning false convictions.
Bryan Stevenson: They need support, they need economic support, they need housing support, they need medical support, they need mental health care. They need to know that their victimization, their abuse has been taken seriously.
Ken Ireland: It was just absolutely unimaginable and I couldn’t even explain the horror of it.
Ken Ireland lost 21 years. He was misidentified by witnesses who collected a $20,000 reward. Convicted in a 1986 rape and murder, DNA proved his innocence.
Because of the rare perspective of an innocent man who’s done hard time, the governor put Ireland on Connecticut’s parole board.
Scott Pelley: So this is your new cell?
Ken Ireland: Well, yeah, for eight hours a day.
It took five years to get this job. At first, he lived with his sister. And he found work as a counselor for troubled kids.
Ken Ireland: When I first was released, I got a little small apartment in town. I mean there was the nights where I just barricaded myself in a big walk-in closet and slept in there. Just thinking, you know, you know, someone’s going to come kick down my door and drag me back.
Scott Pelley: You slept in a closet?
Ken Ireland: Yeah, yeah, a few times I have.
Scott Pelley: Are you over that now, six years later?
Ken Ireland: Yeah, I don’t have them issues now. It gets easier and easier every day.
One thing that made it easier was Connecticut’s new law that compensates the wrongly convicted. A year ago, Ireland was the first to get a check.
Scott Pelley: What did the state give you?
Ken Ireland: Six million dollars.
Scott Pelley: Six million dollars?
Ken Ireland: Right, and--
Scott Pelley: Wow.
Ken Ireland: That’s more than most states are giving.
Scott Pelley: Well it comes to something like 300,000 dollars a year for every year you spent in prison. And you say it’s not worth it?
Ken Ireland: Oh, absolutely not. Absolutely not. They could give me five million for every year and it still wouldn’t be worth it.
Ken Ireland was fortunate, if you can call it that. Many states don’t offer compensation at all. One was Julie Baumer’s home, Michigan.
Scott Pelley: Other than the time, what have you lost?
Julie Baumer: Everything. Everything. My life is nothing as it was.
In 2003, Baumer was a mortgage broker raising her sister’s baby. He became ill so she took him to an emergency room. Doctors there suspected the boy had been shaken until his brain was damaged. Baumer was convicted of child abuse. She was in her fifth year in prison when new evidence showed that the boy had suffered a natural stroke. She was retried, acquitted and the judge apologized. After she was released, for a time, she was homeless.
Scott Pelley: How did you start over?
Julie Baumer: It was very, very, very rough. You start from the bottom reclaiming your identity. I didn’t have an ID. And then after I jumped over that hurdle, then you start applying for jobs. And then you have to go through OK, well, now there’s a five gap-- year gap on your résumé. Why is this? And then you tell your potential employer the truth. In my case, I never got phone calls back.
Scott Pelley: There was no support for you of any kind.
Julie Baumer: No.
Julie now works for a Detroit-area parish. In her spare time, she’s lobbied Michigan’s legislature for a compensation law.
Julie Baumer: No amount of money can ever bring back everything that I’ve lost.
Scott Pelley: No one can fail to see the injustice in these cases. But when it comes to compensation, there are people watching this interview who are saying, “You know, it was just bad luck and we don’t necessarily owe them for the life that they lost.”
Bryan Stevenson: This isn’t luck, this was a system, this was actually our justice system, it was our tax dollars who paid for the police officers who arrested Mr. Hinton. Our tax dollars that paid for the judge and the prosecutor that prosecuted him. That paid for the experts who got it wrong. That paid to keep him on death row for 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit. This has nothing to do with luck. This has everything to do with the way we treat those who are vulnerable in our criminal justice system.
Ray Hinton is considering applying for compensation but Alabama has paid only one exoneree after 41 claims. In the meantime, attorney Bryan Stevenson has been Hinton’s guide to advances like ATMs and smartphones and to frustrations that never change, like getting a license at the DMV.
Ray Hinton: Whether I ever catch up with the world I don’t know but I’m gonna try.
Hinton is working part-time now speaking about justice and faith.
Ray Hinton: I just never, never believed that God would allow me to die for something that I didn’t do. I didn’t know how he was going to work it out but I believed that he would work it out.
Ray Hinton: I can’t get over the fact that just because I was born black and someone that had the authority who happened to be white felt the need to send me to a cage and try to take my life for something that they knew that I didn’t do.
Of course, they did take Ray Hinton’s life. A false conviction isn’t about lost time; it’s the loss of an education, a marriage, the chance to start a family, settle into a job and build a pension. The only thing Alabama didn’t take was the breath from his body.
Scott Pelley: Are you angry?
Ray Hinton: No.
Scott Pelley: How could you not be? Three decades of your life, most all of your life.
Ray Hinton: They took 30 years of my life, as you said. What joy I have I cannot-- afford to give that to ‘em. And so being angry is-- would be giving them--letting them win.
Scott Pelley: You’d still be in prison.
Ray Hinton: Oh absolutely. I am a person that love to laugh. I love to see other people smile. And how can I smile when I’m full of hate. And so the 30 years that they got from me, I count today-- I count every day as a joy.
Since our story first aired, Julie Baumer’s lobbying efforts have paid off. She was on hand recently when the governor of Michigan signed a law allowing her and others wrongly convicted to get compensation for their time in prison.
As for Ken Ireland, he left his job at the Connecticut Board of Pardons and Paroles, bought an RV and is traveling across the United States, making up for lost time.
Something unusual happened on the way to last year’s Grammy Awards: an album was nominated from Malawi, a small country in southern Africa not exactly famous for its music. As Anderson Cooper first reported this past fall, the artists weren’t polished pop stars but prisoners and guards -- men and women in a place called Zomba, a maximum-security prison so decrepit and overcrowded, we heard it referred to as “the waiting room of hell.” How could such beautiful music come from such misery? We went to Malawi to find out.
This is the music that brought us to Malawi, one of the least-developed nations on the planet. It’s a place of staggering beauty. There’s vast mountains, lush forests, and a long, idyllic lake. Drive through the countryside however, and you quickly see poverty is widespread. For the country’s 17 million people, life is full of hardships.
Zomba is Malawi’s only maximum-security prison and the music you’re hearing comes from behind these walls. This prison was built to hold around 400 inmates. Today, there are 2,400 here.
What’s so startling when you walk into the prison yard on a Sunday morning, is that everywhere you turn, there is music. A cacophony of choirs.
Many here are hardened criminals. Robbers, rapists, murderers. Others are casualties of a legal system that can be chaotic and arbitrary, where court files are routinely lost and most suspects have no legal representation.
In a small room off the yard, there’s a prison band practicing every day on donated instruments. Those men in green are guards. They play side-by-side with inmates. Ian Brennan, an American producer who travels the world recording new music in unlikely places, heard about Zomba and, three years ago, flew to Malawi to check it out.
Anderson Cooper: You’re taking a gamble. Because you go to places you don’t necessarily know what’s there, right—
Ian Brennan: No, no, no. We have no idea. It’s a leap of faith every single time.
His was not the only leap of faith. Officer Thomas Binamo took one too. He helped found the prison band eight years ago, and wasn’t sure what to think the day Ian Brennan showed up.
Thomas Binamo: I was quite surprised because I couldn’t understand how this guy knew about us. And why would he be interested in our prison?
Anderson Cooper: It’s not every day a white American knocks on the prison door and says he wants to come in?
Thomas Binamo: Yah it’s true, it’s not every day.
[Ian Brennan: What took you so long?]
Brennan saw promise in this prison, and the possibility of an album so he set up his microphones and asked anyone interested to write and sing songs about their lives – men and women, inmates and guards. It was something most had never done before.
Anderson Cooper: What were you hoping to find?
Ian Brennan: Well, you know, the thing we look for everywhere, which is, you know, music that resonates with us.It’s just-- just this is-- this is what moves me. And hopefully it’ll move someone else.
Anderson Cooper: And when you hear it, you know it.
Ian Brennan: Yeah. You feel it, usually.
Anderson Cooper: Even if you don’t understand the words right away?
Ian Brennan: It’s better when you don’t understand the words. Because when you don’t understand the words, you have to listen to what somebody means, not what they’re saying. And if they mean it.
[Binamo in front of microphone singing “My Wife.”]
Officer Binamo was reluctant to write and sing about his life, but when he did, Ian Brennan knew his music would be on the album. Just listen to what he came up with one morning when we were there -- a softly-sung ballad about the sudden death of his wife.
“You left without saying goodbye,” he sings.
“You left behind the children too”
“They no longer cry”
Ian Brennan: He writes songs and plays as beautifully as someone can. He’s reached that level of transcendence where it can’t be better than it is. It just is. It’s something that just hits you.
To fully appreciate the music here, you have to see the misery, but when we arrived at Zomba, authorities didn’t want us to show what life is like for the prisoners. So, much of what we filmed, we had to record secretly, without the guards knowing. Inmates in Zomba are fed just one meal a day -- a small bowl of gruel made out of cornflower. The menu, we’re told, rarely changes. On good days they get a few beans. On bad days, inmates say, there’s no food at all.
Chikondi Salanje sang on the album nominated for a Grammy. He’s doing time for burglary.
Anderson Cooper: Do you eat meat, chicken, beef?
Anderson Cooper: You’re laughing. That’s not good. When was the last time you had meat?
Chikondi Salanje: 2014… 25 December.
Anderson Cooper: Two and a half years ago on Christmas Day?
Chikondi Salanje: Yah
It’s not just the lack of food, Zomba is so overcrowded prisoners say they only have enough room in their cells to sleep wedged against one another lying on their sides. Stefano Nyirenda also sang on the album.
Anderson Cooper: So you’re sleeping on your side?
Stefano Nyirenda: When you want to turn, you have to do it together.
Anderson Cooper: Right next to each other?
Anderson Cooper: How do you sleep?
Stefano Nyirenda:: We just sleep. We have no choice.
Stefano is in for robbery and he is HIV-positive, as are around a quarter of Zomba’s inmates. They occasionally get visits from an Italian nun, Sister Anna Tommasi who runs a small charity providing some food and legal aid to prisoners.
Anderson Cooper: If you were writing a postcard to somebody who had never been to this prison, how would you describe it here?
Sister Anna: Oh. I think it’s impossible for somebody outside to get-- there are no words which could explain because--
Anderson Cooper: What life is like here?
Sister Anna: Yes, I think before you came, three days ago, if I had written anything, would-- do you think you could have had a clue?
Anderson Cooper: No.
Sister Anna: Sometimes I call it, it’s the waiting room of hell.
Anderson Cooper: That’s what this prison is like? Sometimes.
Sister Anna: Yeah.
If it is the waiting room of hell, salvation for Chikondi Salanje comes from music.
Chikondi Salanje: When I’m singing, I feel like I’m in another world. I don’t feel like I’m in prison at all. It’s only when I stop that I realize ‘Oh, I’m still in prison.’ When I’m singing I forget about everything else.
Anderson Cooper: When the music stops, that’s when you realize you’re in prison?
Chikondi Salanje: When we’re singing the walls are no longer there. But when we stop, the walls return. And then we’re back to counting the bricks again.
Chikondi wouldn’t have to count the bricks much longer. After 5 years here, he was about to get released and when we were there, recorded a new song for Ian Brennan.
It’s about leaving prison...and his fears of life as a free man.
[Chikondi (and Elias) singing “I Paid My Dues.”]
“Don’t call me a criminal, he sings.”
“When I get home they’ll reject me.”
“When something goes missing, they’ll accuse me of stealing.”
“It hurts badly when you call me a criminal.”
In the men’s section of this prison, there are rooms where prisoners take classes taught by inmates and guards. There are also two small libraries where they pour over faded books, and a rundown computer room. But in the women’s section, there is no library, no computers. There is little else but music.
Until Ian Brennan came along the women didn’t have their own instruments, and they couldn’t understand why he was interested in listening to their singing at all.
Ian Brennan: They really-- were-- believed that they were not singers or songwriters. I mean, they were pretty adamant about this. And just at the moment, I-- I was gettint pretty close to feelint like, “Well, you know, we-- we tried”-- one person stepped forward and said, “I’ve got a song.” And then the minute she did that, they literally lined up.
Rhoda Mtemang‘ombe was one of those women who stepped forward. The song she wrote for the Zomba prison album is called “I am alone.”
Anderson Cooper: What does that mean?
Rhoda Mtemang‘ombe: I have no parents. I have no husband, and I’m here in prison. So I realize there’s no one who can help me. So I ask God to help me. He’s the only one who can guide me across this huge river.
Rhoda is serving a life sentence here in Zomba. She’s in for murder.
Anderson Cooper: Do you feel like you’re glorifying criminals?
Ian Brennan: No. No, no, no. it’s humanizing them--
Anderson Cooper: Humanizing--
Ian Brennan: --not glorifying them, at all, right? They’ve committed crimes. Many of them have learned from their experiences. This is about humanizing individuals--
Anderson Cooper: Wha-- wha--
Ian Brennan: --and that’s for the benefit not of them; that’s for the benefit of the listener.
The album Ian Brennan recorded at Zomba did not end up winning the Grammy this past year, and it hasn’t turned a profit either. Brennan has paid the musicians and they have a contract to receive more money if there are future earnings. When he showed up at Zomba with his wife Marilena in May to present the prisoners with some gifts and their Grammy nomination certificate, it was cause enough for celebration, though some of the singers like Stephano Nyrenda still had questions about what a Grammy award really was.
Stephano Nyrenda: Can I ask a little question?
Anderson Cooper: Yeah, of course.
Stephano Nyrenda: This trophy, does it have any money inside of it, or is it just a small prize?
Anderson Cooper: It’s just a token, there’s no money inside the, inside the award.
Being nominated for a Grammy has not changed life for the inmates inside Zomba or for guards like Thomas Binamo living just outside the prison walls. But they are still writing music, and in September, released a whole new album. It’s called “I Will Not Stop Singing.” Inside this prison, it’s the only promise they have the power to keep.
To donate to the Zomba Prison Project, visit http://www.sixdegreesrecords.com/zomba-prison-project-donations/