Spending Time Behind Bars

September 18, 2014

    This last summer, I started a prison choir. It was, I thought, a noble gesture on my part–volunteer my time and talents to the men at the medium security prison in Otisville, NY.  Create harmony in the prison population and all that. What I didn’t know was just how profoundly I would be affected by my time behind bars. It was, at once, profoundly empowering, profoundly healing, and profoundly heart wrenching.

When I first walked into the prison I felt extremely uncomfortable as those gates locked behind me. Driving through the double razor wire was a piece of cake, but those heavy iron doors were something else. They take good care of “civilians” in prison. They do not want any mishaps. I was driven by van  to the classroom where I was to spend the next twelve weeks, all the while wondering just who and what I would find there. Yes, I was nervous. I was afraid I might not be able to handle this population, and I was also concerned because I had never had a choir of just men before.

I didn’t have a large group to start, maybe 17 men. A guard was posted in the hall outside. Some of my new choir members looked like they could be friends of my mom’s. Others looked like I might have been afraid of them had I met them in a dark alley. I made it a point not to ask why they were there, and how much time they had.

I started our session with some breathing and stretching, as I usually do, and then I had the men sing their names so I could learn them. Now, this is an exercise which can be met with a lot of resistance in my regular choirs. But these men, they were not shy. They sang their names with gusto, with plenty of embellishment, and enthusiasm. In fact, from then on, everything I asked them to do they did with this same enthusiasm and commitment. There was this strange empowerment in this for me. Here are these men, who I thought I might be afraid of, and they are doing everything I say. I thought I would be “cowed” by these men, but instead they totally won me over.

At one point they were asking if we could add this or that song to our concert song list. Can we do an Usher song? Sorry, I said, I don’t know any Usher songs. Then someone mentioned, “I Believe I Can Fly” by R Kelly, and they spontaneously broke out into an acappella version. And that is when my heart broke. Watching these disenfranchised men sing, “I believe I can fly. I believe I can touch the sky. I think about it every night and day, Spread my wings and fly away. I believe I can soar. I see me walking through that open door…”, well, it brought tears to my eyes. Here was this disparate group of men who may not have had a word to say to each other in the prison yard, yet through the power of music and song they came together and “soared”. One of the inmates said, “If you get bad news from home, or something bad happens in the yard, you can listen to this song and it makes it right.”

If I didn’t believe before in the power of music to heal the world, I did then. When we did the song in concert several weeks later, we had a whole room full of men “soaring”. Heaven.



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