Prison choir performs at St. Joseph Church in Shawnee
by Joe Bolling
SHAWNEE — Can music point to a better path for a person?
St. Augustine of Hippo thought so.
“Music,” he said, “is given by God’s generosity to mortals with rational souls to lead them to higher things.”
Some men on the path to greatness through music — the East Hill Singers, minimum-security inmates at Lansing Correctional Facility — will perform on November 20 from 4:00-5:30 p.m. at St. Joseph Parish at 11311 Johnson Dr ., Shawnee.
The 14 inmates are accompanied in their performance by nine formerly incarcerated volunteers from the community. They are conducted by Kirk Carson, a civilian with a long career in music who has been a conductor since 2008.
This performance is free and open to the public.
The East Hill Singers, named for a portion of the Lansing State Penitentiary that no longer exists, formed in 1994 as part of the Arts in Prison program, said Leigh Lynch, the program’s executive director.
“The East Hill Singers was our first program and has been going ever since,” she said.
The group made its debut in 1996 and is the only prison choir in the country that regularly travels to perform publicly, she said.
The choir members are all convicted felons serving time in Lansing for committing a variety of crimes. During the concert, inmates are supervised by prison staff.
You’re a little nervous about the upcoming performance.
“Everybody comes [to the church] perform are newcomers,” said Lynch. “Many [previous] Singers have been released and we have a whole new population.”
Typically, singers start out with little to no prior public singing experience. But this time, one of the singers is a real choir-trained tenor who was in the state high school level competition.
“I told him, ‘You’re the rarest of gems,'” Lynch said.
Lynch said there have been no problems performing publicly in the East Hill Singers’ 26-year history. In fact, it has produced positive results.
“It’s having a really significant impact,” Lynch said. “We conducted a survey on recidivism (tendency to reoffend) about a year ago, and of all inmates who sang with the choir, we have a recidivism rate of 8 percent compared to the state’s percentage of 32 percent.”
Both the inmates and the community benefit from the concerts.
“I believe the East Hill Singers do so well on their release because they come out from behind the walls and do these concerts for a period of time prior to their release,” Lynch said.
“They can go back into the community, meet people in the community,” she continued, “and it takes away a lot of their anxiety. Likewise, it takes a lot of anxiety away from community members who are a little concerned about these people returning to their neighborhoods.”
Lynch said the inmates were grateful for the opportunity to make a public appearance and were “overwhelmed” by the kindness with which they were received. There will be a reception line where the audience can thank them after the performance.
“For them to come out and have people they don’t know come up to them and congratulate them and shake their hands and tell them they did a good job is great,” Lynch said. “And I think the fact that they can interact with people they don’t know gives them hope that they will be able to [return] into the community and live a social life.”
The congregation will offer inmates a special treat after their performance, a barbecue dinner, Deacon Mark Mies said. He helped feed the inmates when they performed at the community twice before.
“We’re going to pull out real plates and cutlery and have dinner with them,” Deacon Mies said. “Some of these guys have told me in the past how grateful they are just to feel normal, to sit with people and have a great dinner.”
Dinner is for the inmates and some community workers. It is not open to the public.
Matt Winterhalter, music director at St. Joseph Parish, hopes a lot of people will come to the performance, even though there’s a Chiefs-Chargers football game on the day.
“Fostering the arts is always valuable,” Winterhalter said, “but as Catholics we are called to live the corporeal works of mercy, one of them [being] “Visit the detainees.”
“This is a perfect opportunity to live out this work of mercy. Although we do not go to prison, we conveniently allow prisoners to come to us to aid in their rehabilitation.”
The performance will be streamed live and can be viewed at church.stjoeshawnee.org/watch-live.