Lansing “And there’s quite enough hope and quite enough power to chase away any gloom. For Jesus, Lord Jesus, is in this very room.”
On a bitterly cold night, the harmony of men’s voices fills the confines of a Lansing Correctional Facility gymnasium.
The East Hill Singers, a choir made up of minimum-custody inmates and community volunteers, sing Latin and Italian at a performance inside the prison. They receive emphatic applause and curious looks from other inmates.
Last year at this time, the fate of the well-known choir appeared in doubt. Budget cuts kept the inmates from traveling to perform at Kansas churches.
But after a one-year hiatus, the inmates will once again leave prison walls. The group performed Jan. 17 at Atonement Lutheran Church in Overland Park, a concert that was open to the public.
Last year the inmates appeared by video as community members performed, a desperate move to keep the choir in the public eye. The concerts were an essential funding source for Arts in Prison, the nonprofit group that organizes and privately funds the choir. Without donations from the concerts, Arts in Prison wondered how long it could continue the program.
“The point is kind of having the East Hill Singers there — all of them,” said conductor Kirk Carson. Prison officials said they simply couldn’t pay staff overtime to accompany the inmates last year.
But this year, Warden David McKune and Arts in Prison have come up with a new plan. Instead of paying employees overtime, he will use administrative staff who volunteer and a regularly scheduled employee to transport the inmates.
However, those employees alone aren’t enough to supervise every aspect of the concert. The prison also will rely on 33 trained volunteers from Arts in Prison to oversee the 27 inmates. The volunteers, who have been trained by the Kansas Department of Corrections, oversee the choir during regular practices, and they have a proven track record, McKune said.
“They’re fully trained and authorized to supervise that group of men,” McKune said. “I’m comfortable with what we’re doing or I wouldn’t do it.”
Prison officials have long commended the program because it fills inmate time with constructive and fulfilling work. The program teaches positive hobbies that will be essential if inmates are to avoid returning to prison. Also, released inmates are allowed to rejoin the choir as volunteers.
When the public concerts ended last year, many worried that inmate participation would drop. They wondered if the inmates were singing for the lure of a concert outside the walls and the home-cooked meals served by church members.
“It’s the dangdest thing. I thought our membership would falter,” Carson said.
Instead he recruited several new faces. Two dozen men also petitioned Carson to start a music theory class. Carson, a former university instructor, wondered if the men knew what they were asking. The class was so thorny for college freshmen that 30 percent of the students would drop it.
“That’s how we knew who was serious,” Carson said.
Students didn’t have access to a piano or keyboard, so Carson made paper cutouts of a keyboard so his students could practice.
Seven of the original group are starting their second semester in the class.
“I lost 60 percent of them, but you know what — this is a prison. They didn’t take French horn lessons when they were growing up,” he said.
Most of the men in East Hill Singers had never been part of a middle or high school choir, or had private lessons.
The overall program is considered sacred to several inmates.
Joey Hernandez could be released as early as February. He said the class had allowed him to look at criticism and imperfection in a different light.
“You have to learn how to be a team player,” he said. “You have to learn not to take constructive instruction personally.”