Communities of Caring through Choral Singing: an update from the Oakdale Prison Choir

by Mary Cohen, PhD

After attending an East Hill Singers concert in January 2002 in Overland Park Kansas, my curiosity for Prison Choirs began. In graduate school at the University of Kansas, I spent a lot of time in Prisons, literally and figuratively—learning from Elvera Voth, the Inside and Outside Choir members of the East Hill Singers, and creating a theoretical framework for a Pedagogy for Prison Choirs.
Now, at the University of Iowa, we’ve developed a unique Community of Caring with the Oakdale Prison Choir. It’s provided a space for outside singers to heal, connect, and express, and spaces for inside singers to reconnect with family, create new social connections, and develop new educational programming. Some of these programs include a Writers’ Workshop, Parenting Class, Yoga Classes, and a series of credit-bearing classes called the Liberal Arts Beyond Bars University project.
The Oakdale Prison Community Choir began in 2009 with 22 inside (incarcerated) singers and 22 outside (women and men from the community and the University of Iowa) singers. We have completed our 21st season (two per year), and here is a brief summary of 2018:
  • A new Greetings from Iowa 8 minute documentary from Iowa Public Television is out. This video is a great introduction to the choir.
  • The folks from Iowa Public Television heard about the Oakdale Choir because of our participation in Heartbeat Opera’s New York May 2018 production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. Their revision of this opera had a Black Lives Activist wrongfully arrested. In their stage production, they wove voices from 6 different prison choirs who each audio recorded a section of the “Prisoner’s Chorus.” They also had showed video footage from four of the choirs during the “Prisoner’s Chorus” portion of the opera. See the Oakdale Choir website for links to this story.
  • On November 12, we hosted a Learning Exchange at the Oakdale prison with the Soweto Gospel Choir, Maggie Wheeler (TV actress from “Friends” and also a singer/songwriter from LA), and Sara Thomsen (another singer/songwriter from Duluth, MN). It was THE musical highlight of my career, so far. A research team and I collected data to study this model of a “Learning Exchange,” rather than a traditional concert.
  • This fall I led a Listening Session with a group of survivors of violent crime to hear what they think about music education in prisons. As a result of that session, we hosted a survivor of sexual abuse to come into a choir rehearsal and share his story. We had the director of victims’ services and restorative justice from Iowa Department of Corrections there who coordinated both the listening session and this event.
  • The choir sang and I spoke at the inaugural Negative to Positive Graduation on December 4. This new program was created by inside singer/songwriter and lifer, Michael Blackwell. Its goal is to promote positivity. Michael is featured in the documentary from Iowa Public TV.
  • We have a songwriting and reflective writing component to the choir. As of Fall 2018, we have created 143 original songs, and the choir has performed 76 of these songs. Many original songs are available on the choir website, and we have choir newsletters comprised of writing reflection pieces also on the choir website.
  • Last: the prison administration allowed outside singers to bring homemade treats to our last rehearsal of the season this past Tuesday. The men decorated the gym with a fake fireplace, made cards for all the outside singers, and I have never seen such a feast inside a prison!