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 arts programs at San Quentin Prison, with a goal of reducing recidivism and promoting successful reintegration of inmates into society. Programs include a mentoring network, an inmate-run newspaper, rock and hip-hop bands, and even inmate-run prison podcasts.
For Lapinski, the project stems from his Brooklyn roots.
“It all goes back to East New York,” he says, referring to the once 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 the ’70s, shortly after he graduated from Baruch, Lapinski heard a radio show featuring an Ohio prison inmate who described his liviing conditions.
“He had been there for seven or eight years with no visitors the entire time,” Lapinski recalls. “There was no humanity. So when I decided to move out west, I got in touch with him and visited him as I made the trip.”
Lapinski settled down in the San Francisco Bay Area and became a respected music industry professional, producing more than 2,500 concerts and events throughout California. He worked directly with stars including B.B. King, Carlos Santana, Nina Simone, and Miles Davis.
“I feel like I got a PhD in music just by being around them,” he says.
But helping those most in need remained Lapinski’s passion. He began volunteering with Bread and Roses in 1977, working closely at San Quentin to help bring bands and performers there. In 1979, he founded Freedom Foundation International, the country’s first organization dedicated to exonerating wrongly convicted inmates.
He has volunteered at San Quentin for more than 35 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.