Larry Joe, who found his music behind bars, now inspires others

Larry Joe voluntarily turned himself in to police in South Africa, then found music in prison. He's turned his life around and now preaches against drugs and gangs.

Courtesy of Jonx Pillemer/Douglas Correctional CentER/QCT Music
Larry Joe – that’s his whole name – was released from a South African prison in December 2010. He recorded an album inside prison walls (he’s shown in prison garb) with the aim of reaching out to inmates and youths to urge them to avoid gangs and drugs. He gives talks and concerts at schools and prisons.

Some people get a second chance, a pause in life to turn off the bad influences and walk in a better direction. Larry Joe's second chance came one warm February morning in 2008 at the funeral of his grandfather.

Larry Joe had spent the last seven years of his life as a fugitive, a drug addict, and a gang member in the Cape Flats, a rough-and-tumble part of Cape Town, South Africa. He knew that police would be watching for him at his grandfather's funeral in his hometown of Douglas in Northern Cape Province.

The knowledge that he shouldn't attend his grandfather's last rites ate away at his conscience.

"It made me not comfortable, being a fugitive," recalls Larry Joe, sipping a rooibos tea at a cafe in Cape Town one recent morning. He attended the funeral and wasn't arrested, but he'd had enough. He went to a lawyer. He turned himself in to the police.

As he took responsibility for a burglary he'd committed years before, he found himself taking control of his life.

"I realized, if I'm not going to do this now, I'm not going to have a better life," he says.

On Feb. 11, 2008, he was sentenced to 5-1/2 years in prison.

He distanced himself from prison gangs and even requested solitary confinement to help him think – and later, to start writing songs. He had a lot to write about. His 18-month-old daughter, who had long been ill, died while he was on trial. His father died a few months later.

Maybe it was to reconnect with his late father that Larry Joe (that is his full and only name) started to turn to music. Or maybe it was to reconnect with himself.

"My father taught me to play guitar and to sing," he says in a recent interview. "It was a very good way to deal with the pain and the struggle I was facing inside myself. It was an advantage. In prison, I had all the time in the world to make music."

South Africa, much like the United States, has become increasingly hard-hearted toward those accused of crimes. Here, it's a reflection of the frustration many South Africans feel, living in a country with some of the highest murder and armed robbery rates in the world.

South Africa's top police official, Bheki Cele, recently went as far as authorizing police to "shoot to kill" if necessary when apprehending armed criminals – a policy welcomed by some and vilified by others.

Yet South Africa's prison system bears the imprint of a new generation of leaders who themselves spent years in prison for their political beliefs – men like former President Nelson Mandela and current President Jacob Zuma.

As a result, South Africa's prisons have gone from the rock-crushing punishment culture of apartheid to a philosophy of rehabilitation.

Cyril Van Wyk, the warden for Douglas Correctional Center, says that the guards immediately could tell that Larry Joe was different from other prisoners. On the outside, he was lean and tough-looking. But soon they noticed his voice, singing in the exercise yard. And they started asking him to sing at prison events.

Songs that Larry Joe had written in solitary confinement left crowds spellbound, according to Mr. Van Wyk. The moment Larry Joe opened his mouth, he turned into someone completely different.

"He's not a hardened criminal. He's very humble," Van Wyk says. "We miss him. Not that we'd want to have him as a prisoner. But it's his spirit – his cellmates still talk about him."

A chance encounter helped to set Larry Joe on a new path. At a concert in the prison for World AIDS Day, Larry Joe was on stage, warming up the crowd before the main act, a successful South African band called Freshlyground.

The band's keyboard player, Aron Turest-Swartz, was entranced by Larry Joe. He stayed in touch, and after leaving Freshlyground to start a career as a music producer, Mr. Turest-Swartz helped Larry Joe record an album, "Crazy Life," inside the walls of Douglas prison.

Now released on parole, Larry Joe mixes paid performances with motivational speaking, talking at prisons and schools about his journey from crime to positive creativity.

At the Herzlia School in Cape Town, Larry Joe recently held students enraptured. "This is a story that grabs kids, and they want him to do well," says Mark Helfrich, head of curriculum development at United Herzlia Schools, who attended Larry Joe's talk in late March.

At a time when popular culture glamorizes crime, Larry Joe is doing just the opposite, and the message strikes a powerful chord with students, Mr. Helfrich says.

"This was a story of a guy making good. I was amazed by the impact that he had on our kids.... It's a story that has to be powerful when so many kids in our country have so little hope."

Larry Joe's rehabilitation is an example to other prisoners, says Gustav Wilson.

"As a prisoner, he wanted to make something of himself. He didn't give up on himself," says Mr. Wilson, acting regional director for Northern Cape Correctional Services. "He can have a powerful effect on others because he can tell a story of his life to music."

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