For inmates, prison chorus is a cause worth singing for
Inmates say prison chorus gives them shot at redemption one note at a time
Larry Swinson, a slight, 75-year-old retiree, regularly slides into church pews at Lansing Correctional Facility between much burlier, blue-uniformed men with more tattoos and less singing experience.
The Lawrence resident has been volunteering five years for the East Hill Singers prison chorus, where having a guy in the mix who once carried tunes in barbershop quartets can only help when it comes to staying on key. Perhaps his most disquieting moment happened a few years ago at the finale of an off-prison performance when, as audience members smiled and clapped, an inmate standing next to Swinson leaned over and whispered a confession.
“He had tears in his eyes,” Swinson says. “He said, ‘Nobody ever applauded for me before.’ It brought tears to my eyes, too.”
That memory stuck with Swinson and helps inspire him to keep working with the East Hill Singers. The chorus of minimum-security inmates, organized through the Arts in Prison program, leaves the prison to perform four times a year, and their last performance of this year will be Sunday at First United Methodist Church in Lawrence.
The last time the East Hill Singers came to Lawrence, several years ago at a different church, it was standing room only.
Sara Wentz, the First United Methodist’s director of worship and music, says church members plan to provide a post-concert dinner for the inmates and look forward to opening their sanctuary for the program.
“It’s such a unique opportunity for us to have them here, and it allows us to use our space for a great musical opportunity,” Wentz says.
Matthew Edwards, 34, an inmate from Lawrence, has written and called numerous relatives and friends about the performance, and he’s hoping they’ll be in the audience Sunday.
“I should have quite a few people there,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “It’s an opportunity for me to come to them.”
After meandering up a sidewalk flanked by razor-wire fences and into the Lansing prison’s East Control Center — home to guards, a sign-in sheet and a very sensitive metal detector — Swinson and fellow Lawrence volunteer George Crawford, 75, make their way across the grounds to the chapel, a mint-green and oak-lined room on the second floor of one of the buildings.
“Heeeey, Larry!” singers greet the pair, making room for them in the pews. “George!”
The East Hill Singers, a chorus of inmates from Lansing Correctional Facility, will perform their “Seize the Day” collection of songs at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, at First United Methodist Church, 946 Vermont St.
Planned songs include “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Bring Him Home” from “Les Miserables.”
Admission is free, but donations will be accepted.
An exhibit and sale of artwork created by inmates will precede the concert, beginning at 3 p.m.
Shortly, Kirk Carson, the East Hill Singers’ conductor and artistic director, is putting the lot of them through the paces, sharing praise and constructive criticism from their last show, performed a week ago in Leawood.
“The crowd loved it,” Carson says. “It looked like you were enjoying yourselves, and you were even making the old ladies in the back of the church dance.”
But the singers were also dragging their L’s in “Holy, Holy, Holy,” could’ve enunciated better during “Swing Down Chariot” and really — really — needed to lose the Kansas accent in “Bring Him Home,” Frenchman Jean Valjean’s heart-wrenching prayer from the musical “Les Miserables.”
“It’s a nice accent when you talk; it’s awful when you sing,” Carson says.
The singers soak up each practice point.
Some have had voice training in their pasts, but most have little musical experience. Each time they run through a verse, they sound better.
Edwards says he’s always loved to sing but never did so in an organized group until the East Hill Singers. Since he’s been incarcerated, he says, he’s gotten “in touch” with God and likes how the chorus combines singing and worship.
Singing with the group also provides a welcome escape from the monotony of prison life.
“It’s something happy in an environment where things aren’t necessarily as happy as they could be,” Edwards says. “There’s not a lot of opportunities to feel good here — this actually puts a smile on my face.”
Edwards, convicted of aggravated indecent liberties with a child, is about a year and a half into a minimum four-year prison sentence.
More than anything else, he says, he thinks about getting out. He’s consciously participating in the chorus and other programs that have been shown to decrease the rate of recidivism, and he has his first day, week, month and beyond of his “fresh start” already planned out.
“I’m trying to beat the statistics,” he says. “I don’t ever want to come back here.”
Cameron Norwood, 27, an inmate from Ottawa, has been in prison three and a half years with a year to go.
At Ottawa University, Norwood was in the orchestra and the jazz band. At Lansing, he’s one of a few inmates who sings and plays instruments for the East Hill Singers — the drums.
Norwood, also convicted of aggravated indecent liberties with a child, sees the chorus as a rare opportunity to do something positive for the community while he’s behind bars.
“This is our chance to give back to those you have hurt,” he says.
Plus, he says, “it’s a great opportunity to get out — at least for a day.”
Only prisoners in good standing can participate in off-prison concerts, Norwood says, and they work hard for it. They practice twice a week for an hour and a half.
“It feels great to know that there’s a lot of supporters out there who see us not just as criminals but as people who have made changes in our lives,” he says.
Norwood thinks about what he’ll do when he gets out, too. He doesn’t want to go back to Ottawa, but he doesn’t want to settle far away. He’d like to continue on with the East Hill Singers as a volunteer.
Crawford, the Lawrence volunteer, has a degree in voice and taught music at public schools and says he enjoys the fellowship of the East Hill Singers. He likes hearing the inmates talk about how they look forward to getting out. He likes that they come willingly — “Nobody twists their arm” — and how music seems to bring everyone together.
Crawford recalls the first time he pulled into the prison parking lot for a practice.
“I saw the razor wire and the razor fence, and I thought, ‘You know, that’s all that separates me from being on the inside,'” he says. “… and I guess I like to be reminded about how narrow the fence is.”
Goals of the Arts in Prison program include helping participants become more self-confident in groups, improve their ability to collaborate, better understand empathy and practice cognitive decision-making. In addition to the East Hill Singers, other Arts in Prison programs include a visual arts class at Lansing’s maximum security unit and, soon, Spanish language classes, program executive director Leigh Lynch says.
Lynch says former East Hill Singers have an 18 percent recidivism rate at the three-year post-incarceration mark.
“When compared to the state’s 32 percent, we think this demonstrates that Arts in Prison makes a difference,” she says.
For East Hill Singers member Anthony Seymour, 51, of Wichita, “Bring Him Home” strikes a powerful chord. Seymour, convicted of rape in 2004, faces at least four more years in prison, where he participates in the choir and leads a worship group. He says he relates to Jean Valjean, the former convict in “Les Miserables” whose song shows he has developed a relationship with God and who hopes God will answer his prayers.
When it comes to East Hill Singers performances, Seymour, too, loves seeing smiling faces in the audience.
“Man, that inspires me,” Seymour says. “I’m gonna keep pressin’ on.”