Prison is a place to serve time for a crime, to right what has been wronged, to … learn to sing in a choir?
For about 50 inmates living in the East Unit of Lansing Correctional Facility, a minimum-security section of the prison, learning to sing is exactly what they have been doing.
The inmates are members of the East Hill Singers, an all-male choir of inmates and community volunteers formed in 1998 by Arts in Prison Inc.
Based in Overland Park, Arts in Prison is an organization that reaches out to inmates, mostly in facilities in Leavenworth, Johnson and Wyandotte counties, offering classes and activities through which they can express themselves artistically. The hope is that painting, writing or singing will incite positive change among prisoners and reduce their returns to prison.
“Arts in Prison’s mission is to motivate and inspire positive change through the arts using arts as a tool,” said Leigh Lynch, the organization’s executive director. “And what we know is that in practicing art, inmates are given the opportunity for self-reflection; they connect to that which is good inside themselves and they create something beautiful, whether it’s a visual art piece or piece of music. … They can connect to those positive attributes within themselves. When they do, they begin to hope, and they can see a more positive future.”
Actually, the organization started two men’s choirs at Lansing, one called the Tower Choir made up of inmates in a medium security section. The East Hill Singers, however, get to leave the prison about four times a year to perform public concerts at churches throughout the area.
The East Hill Singers next perform at 4 p.m. Nov. 6 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, 11311 Johnson Drive, Shawnee.
Of the 35 volunteers who sing with the choir, some are former inmates who had been members while incarcerated. Lynch cites them as proof of the group’s effectiveness.
The inmates rehearse with conductor Kirk Carson twice a week for an hour-and-a-half in the unit’s chapel. They don’t see the community volunteer singers until about two hours before a performance, when the entire group rehearses in the chosen venue.
Inmate Darryl Porter has been singing bass with the group for three years now, and he says all the work he’s put into it “brings satisfaction to my soul.”
“It’s a great accomplishment,” Porter, a soft-spoken 51-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., said during an interview at the East Unit. “I get pride and joy out of it.”
Porter is now serving his 19th year in prison for armed robbery, attempted murder and kidnapping. He is expected to face the parole board in 2013. He calls the incident that landed him behind bars in 1992 a result of “the heat of the moment” and hanging out with the wrong crowd.
He says he has been trying to turn his life around ever since.
What motivates him to change?
“Being sent to prison and looking and seeing what’s around you and asking yourself, ‘Is this what you really want out of life?’” Porter said. “‘No’ was the answer to that.”
Being in the choir does the same for fellow inmate Michael Buddenhagen, 46, from Pittsburg, another bass with the East Hill Singers. He is going on his sixth year of incarceration for manufacturing methamphetamine. This is his third time around a cellblock. Buddenhagen says he wants it to be his last, though, especially with two sons, whom he admits to not having “been there for … at all.”
Buddenhagen sees the East Hill Singers as a way to bond with community members and, he hopes, learn something from them.
“It’s just a great opportunity to meet with gentlemen, the volunteers, from the greater Kansas City (area). … They’ve got their lives together. (It’s) kind of a mentor thing I guess,” he said. “It’s good to just be with different people that’s not actually incarcerated, and then going out in the public to sing is a big blessing, too.”
The work going on in and outside the walls of the East Unit has caught the attention of those living well outside of Kansas. Margie Friedman, a longtime television producer in Los Angeles, is shooting a documentary about the singers called, “Conducting Hope.” Or she is trying to — funding has been an issue, she says.
The documentary she envisions will feature interviews with singer-inmates and will center on their experience behind bars.
She and her crew have been to the prison to shoot twice.
Filming the East Hill Singers idea “just had a lot more interesting layers to it than the other choirs that I had found, one being that they perform outside of prison, which I thought was incredible,” she said during a phone interview.
Both Buddenhagen and Porter participated in the documentary.
Porter says the East Hill Singers provide him one way of making positive changes in his life.
“It just makes you feel all bubbly inside,” he says of audience members’ comments after a performance. “(It’s like) wow, I put a smile on somebody’s face. A person I didn’t know got some joy out of something that I did.”