A creative APPROACH to WORKING WITH the incarcerated

In 2008, Young@Heart made its first visit to perform at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction. There was apprehension on both sides as the inmates and chorus waited, wary and separate, in the hot prison yard for the show to start.

With each song the tension faded, and in the end, the two groups crossed the yard with arms outstretched. It was pretty amazing.  

In October 2014 we launched our PrisonVision program, making music with, instead of for, the incarcerated at the Hampshire County Jail & House of Corrections in Northampton and the Western Massachusetts Regional Women's Correctional Center in Chicopee. The Young@Heart team includes Bob Cilman (Director), Mark Guglielmo (Director of Operations, and a former rapper/hip-hop producer) and Ken Mauri (Music Director/Pianist).

We’re not in the business of punishing people. If we were I wouldn’t be here. People are sent here as punishment, not for punishment.
— Robert Garvey, Former Hampshire County Sheriff

The rehearsals happen weekly with a little equipment -- a keyboard, a small amp, sometimes a mic -- and a lot of energy. In the men's prison, the singing usually takes place in the visiting room, where the cinder block walls create natural reverb, giving voices some extra glow. 

In the women’s prison, the rehearsal space is a second-floor classroom with big windows and ample sunlight. The singers arrive, we warm up with some musical vocal exercises -- a ritual identical to the Young@Heart’s -- and then we dive right in. 

Anthony Rodriguez sings “Because I Love You” in concert at the Northampton Men’s Prison backed by Young@Heart with an original rhyme by Stefan Moss. In group homes and prison since 13, Anthony grew up singing this song because it was one of his mother’s favorites. This was his first live performance.

Songs are largely chosen by the inmates (lots of modern R&B, pop and rock), though occasionally we'll introduce a tune that's completely new to them. The women's picks have included songs by Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys and Adele, while the men are singing songs by Mario, Justin Bieber, Sisqo and Force MD’s. We bring in lyrics (no sheet music).

Ken learns the songs in advance. On the first run-through, Bob might invite someone to sing lead. Many times we run through it together, a chorus of voices, finding our way into the song, everyone free to experiment and harmonize. 

Most of them have had a challenge and got off track, but haven’t we all had challenges?
— Sara Lee Bartley, 78, Y@H member

There’s structure to the rehearsals and the songs, but there’s also a fun vibe, with free flow and low stakes. People laugh, smile and sometimes cry. It’s amazing how quickly a song can tap our inner emotion and lay it bare in the room -- searching for an outlet, it finds the path of least resistance in song.

We have a lot of regular participants, some since the beginning of the program. Others we’ve only seen once. Every six months or so, when the time feels right, we whittle the songs down to the best dozen-or-so and schedule a concert, to be performed in the prison by the inmates, backed by the Young@Heart Chorus and band. 

Then it hits the next level: the singers are encouraged to memorize the lyrics, to own the song. As they realize they'll be standing before their peers, in public, alone at a microphone, many for the first time in their lives, they take ownership and rise to the occasion. They show tremendous courage, determination and commitment. 

I came back to myself during that show. That’s the only way I can describe it: being awakened into becoming more truly myself.
— Rachelle Gendron, former PrisonVision vocalist

So far we’ve had five concerts at the Northampton Jail and four at the Chicopee facility, each of them uniquely riveting. Longtime Young@Heart sound technician Dan Richardson sets up his full professional sound system. It’s a real event. The excitement in the room is palpable, for audience members and performers alike.

Lee Wilson performs "I Still Got It" featuring an original rhyme written and performed by Philip Ragland at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton, MA.

We also work with minimum security male inmates on furlough and with select male and female singers after their release from prison by inviting them to our rehearsals in Florence to sing with the Young@Heart.

This allows them to continue singing with the group. It also allows them to prepare for their performance. These concerts, sometimes in the facility, and others, in the community, are always filled with courage, determination and respect. 

You’ve given me something I’ve never really had, a real sense of accomplishment, humbleness, respect, love and the one thing I never thought possible – acceptance – not only with the Young@Heart but with the community.
— Chris Barre, former PrisonVision vocalist

Our PrisonVision program will continue indefinitely. Special thanks to the Janey Fund, the Beveridge Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts for helping to fund this program. To make a donation to support this program click here.

 Sherod, Tony and Chris from the Old Souls celebrate backstage with Y@H's Bill Sheppard after a rousing live performance at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton, MA.

Sherod, Tony and Chris from the Old Souls celebrate backstage with Y@H's Bill Sheppard after a rousing live performance at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton, MA.


PRISONVISION IN THE NEWS

VALLEY ADVOCATE

Jailhouse Rock: What do a dozen Northampton inmates and a chorus of senior citizens have in common? Hunter Styles and Mickey Bedell's in-depth portrait of the project in its early stages. Read more

Watch the video here

NEPR RADIO NEWS

Young at Heart Chorus Joins Inmates In Song: NEPR Radio News correspondent Alden Bourne goes behind the scenes and behind bars to report in the lead up to a prison concert. Hear more

HUFFINGTON POST JAPAN

Correspondant Kazuhiko Iimura goes behind the scenes with the Y@H at the Hampshire County Jail for an in-depth look at the program. Watch here

For Japanese-language article click here