For decades, Tom Lapinski (’72) has worked to inject humanity into America’s prison system. And his latest project, Through the Bars, is his most ambitious venture yet.
The foundation supports history, music, and an inmate-run newspaper program at San Quentin State Prison, with a goal of reducing recidivism and promoting successful reintegration of inmates into society. Another program includes mentoring at-risk youth by bringing them into the prison to interact with the inmates.
For Lapinski, the project stems from his Brooklyn roots.
“It all goes back to East New York,” he says, referring to the notoriously dangerous Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up. “There was so much violence and crime, but I developed some skills and techniques that made me confident I could survive anywhere.”
He also developed a tremendous amount of empathy. In 1971, during his spring junior year, Lapinski heard a radio show on WBAI featuring an Ohio prison inmate named Jeff.
“He had been there for seven years with no visitors the entire time,” Lapinski recalls. “There was no humanity.” He started corresponding with the inmate and, in 1973, on his way to moving to California, he stopped to see Jeff in prison in Marion, OH.
Lapinski settled down in the San Francisco Bay Area and became a respected music industry professional, producing more than 2,600 concerts and events throughout California.
Lapinski was the producer/director of the (Bay Area) California Music Awards for 15 years. He also served as supervising producer of the (Paul Masson) Mt. Winery in Saratoga, CA for another 15 years. He lived in Paul Masson’s cottage on the winery property from June through September each year. In 1984, he was delighted to have the headliners stay in Paul Masson’s Chateau. He spent the weekends with artists like B.B. King, Johnny Cash, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, Roy Orbison, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis. “I got a PhD in Music just by being around these legends,” he says.
But helping those most in need remained Lapinski’s passion. In 1976, he began volunteering with Bread and Roses, an organization that brings free live entertainment into psychiatric facilities, retirement homes, drug rehabilitation programs, etc. He was hired to work there in June 1977. By August, he was working in San Quentin to help bring bands and performers inside. In 1979, he co-founded the Freedom Foundation International (DBA Freedom Foundation) with a San Quentin inmate. This was the first organization dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted inmates.
He has volunteered at San Quentin for 36 years.
“It’s been an amazing journey, from East New York all the way to the Bay Area,” says Lapinski. “And when you talk with the inmates and see the impact you’re having, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
Learn more about Through the Bars here.