Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2013 | Features

Freedom to Change

By Shelbi Thomas
Thanks to UI volunteers, hope and joy bloom in a dark place.
Freedom kid

About seven miles northwest of the main University of Iowa campus, Mary Cohen parks her car outside a double barbed wire fence. She rolls up the windows, locks the door, and walks inside a building to greet an officer patrolling the security checkpoint.

The UI associate music education professor and several friends show their driver's licenses, sign in, and don ID badges. After searching through their bags and an instrument case, the officer itemizes and approves the group's sheet music, musical shaker instruments, and a violin. Next, Cohen and her group pass through a metal detector and walk through two rooms with doors that lock temporarily to prevent a security breach. Silently and in single file, they follow an officer down the hall. Several minutes later, a sparsely furnished room fills with the sound of voices that soar and intertwine in a song of hope.

Here at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) in Oakdale, about 30 of the prison's 300 long-term inmates join with volunteers in the Oakdale Community Choir to explore the redemptive, therapeutic, and community-building possibilities inherent in music. The choir is one of several activities in the UI Prison Partnership Program that Cohen started to provide a bridge between the incarcerated and the community.

"I walked a mile within these shoes, and all I got was cut and bruised. But now I'm here so let's be clear: From the former came the new. When I was down at the bottom, change was all that I could do."

Because of bad choices or decisions that forever changed their lives—and those of their victims—some inmates housed at Oakdale have lost at least a decade of freedom. Convicted of serious crimes including substance abuse, sex offenses, battery, and theft, they may fear that they'll never escape their past. Yet, once a week, voices rise in harmony and echo off the cold, sterile walls of this medium-security prison.

"I am so much more than this number on my ID
I am so much more than your excuse not to like me
I am so much more than this charge on my conviction
I am so much more than all your negative predictions."

Eventually, 96 percent of Oakdale's inmates will walk free—and volunteers in the UI Prison Partnership Program hope to ensure they don't return. Through activities like the choir, a book club, a job club, and parenting skills workshops, they aim to help prisoners improve both their own lives and the communities that they'll eventually rejoin.

"They'll move into our neighborhoods; their kids will go to public schools; they will have jobs at the places we work and frequent," says Kathrina Litchfield, a UI School of Library and Information Science student who helps lead an IMCC book club. "If we put them in an environment where there's no opportunity for personal and intellectual growth, we're telling them that we don't expect growth from them when they are released—and that's dangerous."

Nationwide, understaffed and overpopulated prisons welcome volunteers who help them accomplish their mission on a tight budget. The Iowa Department of Corrections relies on evidence-based practices that focus on inmates' eventual reentry into society, and the UI Prison Partnership Program dovetails well with its efforts to rehabilitate prisoners. IMCC deputy warden Greg Ort praises volunteers for the exemplary role models and positive social interactions they provide.

Since its founding in February 2009, the Oakdale Community Choir has worked to fulfill its own mission: to "empower participants to embrace the joys of hard work for a meaningful purpose, build companionship rooted in sharing one's self and responding to others, gain confidence that each one of us can contribute to a greater good, and honor who we are as individuals and as a community."

Each week, in practice sessions that begin with a round of "Beauty Before Me" and end with the traditional Navajo blessing "May You Walk in Beauty," the choir rehearses songs with positive themes: how to become a better person, accept and learn from the past, and move forward in confidence and hope. As they practice "The Prayer of St. Francis" about being an instrument of peace in the world, Cohen reminds them to "think about how the words might apply in your life, so you can really make a connection to the message you're singing."

Choral singing offers psychological benefits such as enhanced self-esteem, a sense of belonging and accomplishment, and a forum for healthy self-expression. Symbolically, the choir also represents the principles of restorative and transformative justice that Cohen espouses. In a powerful display of forgiveness, men who once committed grave offenses against society team up with people dedicated to seeing their restoration to the community.

Through their careful choice of words, volunteers show faith in the men’s commitment to transformation, referring to them as "inside singers" rather than prisoners, inmates, or offenders. For their part, volunteers are called "outside singers."Although seemingly minimal, such efforts to break down negative stereotypes produce results. As inside singer Joel Conard says, "The positive reinforcement makes you want to be good."

The choir's efforts culminate in two concerts held each season—one for IMCC prisoners and another for outside guests. Inmates start with a wide range of musical abilities; some can't read traditional notation, while others have extensive instrumental backgrounds. By the time of the concert, they've not only prepared for the performance, but have also designed the programs, practiced their guitar and piano parts, and prepared introductions to the songs. The outside audience for their concerts includes university administrators, state representatives, and other distinguished guests, but inside singers' families always receive special recognition, as well as a CD to remember their loved one's accomplishment.

"May you walk in beauty in a sacred way. May you walk in beauty each and every day."

Inspired by the success of the choir, several other volunteer programs have sprung up within the walls of the IMCC. In the hour before choir rehearsal, Cohen leads a songwriters' workshop, where participants perform original songs and learn to give and receive constructive criticism.

One IMCC original, "May the Stars Remember Your Name," has made an impact well beyond the confines of the prison.

In 2010, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma joined some members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to perform the piece at a juvenile prison in Warrenville, Ill. The song voices a longing for the day of freedom when a prisoner can finally see the stars again.

Besides songs, the men of the IMCC also pen novels, poems, musicals, plays, and memoirs through the IMCC Writers' Workshop. UI associate rhetoric professor Mary Trachsel, 75BA, and UI English-as-a-second-language instructor Jen Brown, 03BA, 04MA, lead the workshop, which encourages participants to express themselves through writing and offer constructive feedback to others. Says Trachsel, "It's a time of normalcy where we joke, talk, and think of ourselves as writers."

In this supportive environment, community grows. One participant who writes an advice column for the IMCC newsletter recently learned of the death of a fellow inmate with no family. The columnist wrote a eulogy for the deceased man and helped organize a memorial service in his honor.

Other inmates participate in the IMCC Book Club, overseen by Litchfield. Once a month, around a dozen participants gather to discuss the current pick. Inmates treasure their freedom to choose the book and occasionally enjoy a surprise visit by the author. "Literature is not just for recreation and escape, but for gaining that sense of empathy," says Litchfield. "[IMCC readers] get practice at understanding someone else's perspective."

Admittedly, Litchfield isn't always enthused by the group's choices, such as Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas and Micah Sparks. But, she came to understand what the inmates found so valuable about the bestselling memoir. "Many have no family to return to upon their release—loved ones have either died during their incarceration, or abandoned them," she says. "I can appreciate what they see in the text, and Sparks' optimism and values can be a real balm for someone who is seeking a new take on life. And if this book helps a man feel less lost in the world, then I'm glad it's out there."

Like many IMCC volunteers, UI assistant theatre arts professor Tlaloc Rivas was inspired to start a program after attending an Oakdale Community Choir concert. Along with his students, he plans to offer a theatre workshop that includes acting, playwriting, and play analysis. "Theatre likes to embrace the misfits and outcasts of society," he says. "Once inmates are inside those walls, society has forgotten them. Theatre serves as a way to help them reconnect to the outside world, walk in someone else's shoes, and examine the choices we make."

UI professor emeritus and clinical psychologist Dennis Harper, 66MA, 72PhD, uses his professional expertise to offer a parenting class to inmates. Through a workbook, discussion, and role-playing, he gives practical tips to fathers separated from their families. He also offers guidance for rebuilding relationships (such as how to explain their prison time to their kids) and using nonviolent approaches to discipline children. "Families tend to have a lot of doubt and wonder, 'You've been in prison for nine years, but are you really any different?'" says Harper. "I let the guys know they will make mistakes, but they can move forward and change."

In another IMCC program called "Stories for Dads," inmates record themselves reading a book that's sent to their children. One such recording gave a three-year-old girl the only opportunity to hear her father's voice—and that was enough to push him to become a better parent.

Besides restoring relationships with family members, former prisoners also encounter the enormous challenge of finding work in the face of social stigma and a tough economy. In 2010, IMCC inmates founded the Hubbub Job Club to help support each other in their return to the workforce. The program impressed administrators at Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility so much that they plan to start a similar club, as well as a community choir, at their prison.

Assisted by UI social work master's student and AmeriCorps reentry coordinator Haley Kamps, 08BS, and UI assistant urban and regional planning professor Rick Funderburg, the IMCC club offers weekly speakers, tips for writing résumés and cover letters, and mock interviews. Participants learn about the work opportunity tax credit available to companies who hire them and the proper way to deal with questions from potential employers about their troubled past. Says Kamps, "We tell them not to spend a lot of time talking about the crime, but about the skills they've gained and how they're trying to be a better person now."

Moved by the inmates' enthusiasm, eagerness to learn, and progress, many volunteers unexpectedly find that the experience at Oakdale changes their own lives. That was Cohen's plan for the program all along. "People involved [in the Prison Partnership Program] enter the project with the intention of learning from one another," she says. "We are not going in there 'to help."

Volunteers also gain a greater awareness of the social issues surrounding the criminal justice system. "People think of [the incarcerated man] as an invisible person, or they have the misconstrued idea that a prisoner is not even a person," says Cohen. "But the volunteers see inmates as individuals, not just statistics or stereotypes. They put a human face to this issue and to crime."

Inside singers share a similar experience, thriving in an atmosphere that makes them feel normal and accepted. Conard says he appreciates that the outside singers give him personal attention, ask him how he's doing, and always smile. "It's the highlight of my week," he says. "It's a time in here that you can feel relaxed and have no tension. It feels like being home."

One day, Conard and many of the other inmates will return to their real homes. But until then, they sing.

"Between the sunrise, take a look deep inside,
See the man that has changed, while alone in the night,
I'll move right along, on my own,
As the night breeze wraps me up in his song.
And the stars, and the stars, remember, remember my name."

Problems in Prisons

Though the Iowa Department of Corrections has one of the country's lowest recidivism rates, 30.8 percent of inmates return to prison within three years of discharge. Recidivism rates are even greater among the many prisoners with mental illness, who often lack sufficient treatment services in their home communities.

According to a 2003 U.S. Bureau of Justice study, mental illness affects 18 percent of Iowa's total prison population. The crisis began in the 1950s, when the introduction of the first effective antipsychotic medicine led to the deinstitutionalization of America's psychiatric hospitals. Without community mental health services available to support the massive transition, many patients landed in prison after refusing treatment for severe mental illnesses and becoming a threat to society. They had—and often continue to have—no other place to go.

UI sociology professor Karen Heimer says that tougher drug laws in the 1980s also led to an overcrowded prison system. Rather than emphasizing prevention and rehabilitation programs for substance abuse problems, she says, the nation's punitive approach has led to fuller prisons and more tax dollars spent locking up inmates. Around 26 percent of Iowa inmates are in prison for drug-related charges, and 90 percent have past or present problems with drugs and alcohol. Altogether, Iowa holds more than 8,000 prisoners, with an average daily cost of $84.85 per inmate.

On a national level, Congress has proposed legislation to help recently released men and women find jobs, housing, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and support to strengthen their families, so that they don't reoffend and tax an already burdened system. Heimer says Iowa's programs, which include substance abuse treatment, education, and work release opportunities, are well-respected across the country.

They had—and often continue to have—no other place to go.

As part of the rehabilitation process, inmates at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) in Oakdale learn to contribute to society by running some of the prison's everyday operations (including all the cooking, cleaning, painting, and gardening) and working for community causes. Recently, IMCC inmates raised more than $1,000 for breast cancer research, participated in a charity walk inside the prison, and filled more than 4,000 sandbags for the county during a spring flood.

"[Prison is] not like what you see on TV or in the movies," says IMCC deputy warden Greg Ort. "It's important for the community to know that offenders are not necessarily to be feared. They need support and assistance to be reintegrated and to be positive members of the community."