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Right notes behind bars in choir group

BY MARY HARRINGTON | MARCH 26, 2009 7:40 AM

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Life inside Oakdale Prison is rarely bright for Jason Wheeler. But now, the 20-year-old inmate looks forward to several hours of congregation, reflection, and song every week.

Joining voices with UI students, community volunteers, and fellow inmates, Wheeler practices weekly in a prison choir. It’s just one step on his road to rehabilitation, he said.

“Many people on the outside think we’re less than human, but we’re not all like that,” Wheeler said. “Some of these volunteers have hopefully seen that for themselves.”

Standing in a dim prison hallway, he smiles as he describes church and choir practice, now the only highlights of his weekly routine.

Every Tuesday, Wheeler and his peers gather inside the Iowa Medical and Classification Center for practice — an occasion many of the participating inmates take very seriously.

The program has become a social opportunity where some college-aged offenders can spend a few brief hours with students and community members from the outside world. The unlikely relationships have forced participants to view each other from a different perspective.

They share sheet music and help each other with warm-ups as they sit side by side, their diverse voices blending into one grand sound. Like school children, they sit at attention, awaiting direction from their energetic teacher.

“The volunteers and offenders have both embraced this project,” said UI music-education Assistant Professor Mary Cohen, who directs the choir. “Their enthusiasm is contagious.”

Every rehearsal begins with “Beauty Before Me,” and ends with “May You Walk in Beauty.” Some of the inmates’ favorite songs on the agenda include “Lean on Me,” and “Ose Shalom.”

“Some of these guys have found out they’ve had a talent they didn’t know they had before,” said Deputy Warden Greg Ort.

The choir has improved greatly over eight weeks of practice under Cohen’s direction. Music students from the UI are some of the participating voices, attending the rehearsals as part of a seminar offered this semester.

UI junior Laura Anderson, a music therapy major, has found her experience in the class so rewarding she is now considering working with prisoners after graduation.

“Just watching them make progress every week, and witnessing the power that music can have is so rewarding,” Anderson said.

The group has a final performance in April for friends or family members of the inmates.

But the final production is not on the singers’ minds. It is the time spent with community members, learning new words and expressing them in song, they said. It’s a part of the process of preparation for re-entering society, Cohen said. And along the way, some inmates have felt touched by the experience.

“I believe that in each song, there’s a specific message that gets across to someone,” said 20-year-old inmate Jordan Breeding. “And even if that’s just one person, it can still make a difference, one that counts.”


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