From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Halfway through a five-year jail term for imprisoning and assaulting a woman in a West Hollywood hotel in 1992 and furnishing drugs to another woman in 1991, Rick James scarcely resembles the man who strutted to the top of the music world in 1981 with the dance hit "Super Freak." The flamboyant spandex outfits have been replaced by prison blues, and his hair, once flying in signature braids, is now close-cropped. But to James, such changes are minor compared with those that have taken place within. "Prison has been a blessing in disguise," says the singer, 48. "Otherwise I probably would have been dead by now." James credits his incarceration in California's Folsom Prison with helping end his decade-long addiction to crack cocaine, which, he says, resulted in "a lot of perversion and insanity." Now a member of Narcotics Anonymous and a devout Muslim, he's looking forward to starting anew. "I never want to see cocaine again," says James, who becomes eligible for parole later this year. "It destroyed me."

At Folsom, James has been written up for minor infractions—"He's just like any other inmate," says prison spokesman Floyd McIntosh, "not a model prisoner, but average." Yet the singer, who meditates daily, says that he's trying to stay out of trouble. When not working as a file clerk in Folsom's receiving area, he writes songs in the 5-foot by 10-foot cell that he shares with another inmate. "Writing music," he insists, "gives me a focus and a center."

He has also found stability in his relationship with girlfriend Tanya Hijazi, 26, who served 15 months in prison in connection with the assault incident and is now a student at Pierce College. The couple have a son Tazman, 4, and plan to marry when James is released. "People look at us like we're Bonnie and Clyde, but we really love each other," he says. "She's my best friend and soulmate." Adds Hijazi: "I think we'll center on family life. Rick has reached an age to settle down. No one partying will be welcome in our house. We've grown out of that."