Life after prison: Master guitar maker decides to tell his story

Robert VincentWhen leaving prison, should you tell the story of your incarceration or keep it a secret? And how long do you wait before you do so?

It took master guitar maker Robert Vincent 10 years to tell his story. Now that he’s done it, he’s glad he did, but doubts remain about the effect it could have on his guitar business. So far, however, people’s reactions have been positive, and the story of how prison changed his life serves as an inspiration.

Reason for incarceration

Vincent was incarcerated after an unfortunate incident early in his adult life.

“I got involved in an altercation with another group of young men. One of the men in my group pulled out a gun and shot a man in the other group,” he says. “One young man lost his life. I got charged with second-degree murder along with the triggerman and was sentenced to 16 to life. I entered the prison system when I was 21 and was released in 2005.”

After serving 3-1/2 years at Pelican Bay, Vincent was transferred to Deuel Vocational Institute in Tracy, Calif. There he continued to be involved in an arts program, but what Tracy had to offer changed his life.

One day the teacher of a guitar making class asked for help, because the men were having trouble spraying lacquer on the guitars, and before incarceration Vincent had been an automotive painter. After spraying a few guitars, Vincent decided to build one himself.

Guitar making became a passion

A year later, well known luthier and teacher Kenny Hill gave Vincent a book on the design elements of classical guitar. “It struck a chord with me. I dove in and started studying as much as I could – whatever I could get my hands on,” he says.

Vincent went on to complete about 30 instruments inside prison. He donated several of them to an auction benefitting a local charity, as well as to another event sponsored by PBS in Sacramento.

“That gave me a head start. My instruments were on the market and people were interested in them,” Vincent says.

Meanwhile, his prison job assignment was to work in the arts program. He took care of the equipment and maintained the workshops spaces and started to teach the inmates guitar building. Kenny Hill would come in four times a year to critique the guitars that were being made and offer instruction and advice.

Vincent learned much from visiting artists

Working in the arts program brought him into contact with the many artists – painters, printmakers and ceramic artists – who visited the prison. “Dealing with the artists helped me grow as an artist. All of them were helpful and encouraging,” he says.

Vincent’s work in the arts program and being able to create classical guitars changed his life.

“I wasn’t just isolated for 16 years with yard talk. Because the program was so popular, the (prison’s) public relations officer would bring in tours, local politicians and college students,” Vincent says. “Communicating with other people besides guards and inmates was a tremendous opportunity for me.”

Involvement in the arts also gave his two sons – one was five and the other two at the time Vincent was incarcerated – a reason to be proud of their father. When they visited him every month, the conversation often turned to the arts. Now his older son is a practicing artist and the other a woodworker.

Harry Belafonte orders guitar for Carlos Santana

In addition, his guitars gained such a great reputation that Harry Belafonte commissioned him to build a guitar for Carlos Santana.

Arts program made it all possible

“I thought about what happened to me in the first place and wanted to better myself so that it would never happen again. I don’t know if that would have been possible without the arts program,” he says.

Upon release in 2005, Vincent went to work in his brother’s wrecking yard business and began to purchase the equipment and materials to start his own guitar making shop, which he now operates out of his garage in San Diego.

His guitars are for classical guitarists who play concerts and sell for about $7,000 each. It’s a small market, and his dealers take a major cut, so he characterizes himself as a starving artist but one with few expenses. Still he’s doing what he loves and has made a name for himself.

Finally ready to tell his story

And now, more than 10 years later, he’s ready to tell his story.

“My guitars have been pretty successful, but for years I never mentioned that I learned in prison. I was eager to tell the story, but it wasn’t perceived so well by a pretty well known dealer my first year out. So I quit telling the story after that until this year,” he says.

In fact, in the past he did speaking engagements at conferences and colleges under the agreement that there would be no Internet information mentioning his name.

“For 10 years I would Google my name every month or two to make sure my story wasn’t out there – somebody else’s version of it,” he says. And then one day, a persistent reporter from San Francisco’s KQED radio station called wanting to report his story. And it was published in June.

“I decided it was finally time to get the story out there, and it felt really good,” Vincent says. He called his dealers in New York and Los Angeles. They didn’t care about his background and were supportive.

In fact, he hasn’t experienced anything negative but is still a bit unsettled. “I don’t know whether I’ll live to regret this, but it’s a huge relief to tell the story,” he says.

Should others do the same?

“It’s a personal decision. And I really don’t know the answer to that yet,” he says.

 

Seth Sundberg used incarceration experience to create Prison Bars

Prison Bars

Seth Sundberg, founder of Prison Bars (center).

A growing number of inmates and those in reentry are using skills they learned in prison and in post-release programs to start their own businesses. But it’s not easy.

Just ask Seth Sundberg, founder and CEO of Prison Bars, a company that launched commercial production of its “criminally delicious” snack bars in late September.

The former professional basketball player – for the Los Angeles Lakers and 10 European teams – and mortgage company branch manager was convicted of tax fraud and served five years in prison where he worked in the kitchen.

One day he took out a box of chicken labeled “unfit for human consumption,” an experience that ultimately inspired him to search for healthy things to eat and create nutritious handmade granola bars that he sold to other prisoners. They were so popular that Sundberg not only made a fair amount of pocket money but once released thought they might have appeal on the outside as well.

Defy Ventures offered support system

Fortunately for him, about the time he left prison New York-headquartered Defy Ventures was expanding to San Francisco. This entrepreneurship development program works with formerly incarcerated individuals (and now works inside prisons as well) to help them create businesses.

While some participants need to develop the skills to run a business, for Sundberg the organization benefited him in other ways.

“I had the skill set to do the business, but had it not been for the support system at Defy and the accountability system of Defy, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he says. “It’s not easy to come back to life and repair relationships and everything and start a new business. Without that support and the structure of Defy this would not have happened.”

But happen it did, and now Prison Bars, which manufactures snack bars that are non-GMO and gluten free, has eight employees in its day-to-day operations. Five of them, including Sundberg, were incarcerated, and most of them he knew from prison.

After graduating from Defy in October 2015, Sundberg and a team began to make Prison Bars by hand in a commercial kitchen in San Francisco. The company also took tons of pre-orders, did events and sold T-shirts and coffee mugs to get the word out.

And the word is getting out.

“We have commitments from Bi-Rite Grocers to be in a couple of their stores,” Sundberg says. “Our primary market is local tech companies that provide all kinds of snacks for their employees and want to have a social impact. We have commitments from Google and are talking with some other large tech companies as well. That’s our primary model. We will get into retail distributions as a secondary piece.”

Need to be patient

One of the biggest challenges Sundberg is facing is the need to be patient and not grow his company too fast, but patience is something one develops in prison, he says.

One of his goals is to educate people on the issues related to incarceration, and that takes time. “Part of this is raising awareness among people who may not have been involved with incarceration. There are a lot of people who are receptive, but there’s still a lot of pushback as well,” he says. “We want to be a catalyst to start conversations.”

Now that the business is in commercial production, the next step for Prison Bars is to raise additional funding. He’s already taken out two Kiva zip loans, partly for the exposure that the organization offers.

Sundberg is currently creating bigger fundraising plans, although venture capital is not in the mix at this point. “We’re going to take on private investors. We took on two small private investors, and they’re going to get involved with the next round of funding and introduce us to more people,” he says. His goal is to expand inventory and develop new flavors.

Tips for budding reentry entrepreneurs

Sundberg has advice for those coming out of prison who may want to start their own businesses.

“One of Defy’s key points is to prove your concept quickly and become profitable quickly. A lot of guys inside have a lot of time to think and have a lot of grand visions, and those are great, but they are for company number two,” he says.

Beyond that, “Stay with it. Stay humble. Nothing is easy. The reentry piece is especially tough. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The only way successful reentry occurs is through community. Be vulnerable and let people help you.”