Voices from Within warms up for their Christmas concert at California Correctional Center. Photos by Glenda Svendsen

Arts in Correction partnership helps inmates

Sounds of music rang out from the chapel at California Correctional Center last week courtesy of Voices From Within. The choir, led by mezzo-soprano singer Liudmila Mullin, consists of about 20 inmates who volunteered to participate in the Arts in Corrections program.

According to the website for California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, “AIC is a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the California Arts Council, designed to prepare inmates for success upon release, enhance rehabilitative goals, and improve the safety and environment of CDCR institutions.”

Choral director Liudmila Mullin leads a choir at California Correctional Center in a recent Christmas concert.

A study titled, “California Prison Arts: A Quantitative Evaluation,” states, “We found that the inmate-artists in this study were far more likely to pursue other educational and vocational programs than inmates without arts experience or education.”

Programs enabling prisoners to express themselves therapeutically strengthens rehabilitation and are touted as a factor in reducing recidivism.

Research by the University of San Francisco School of Management suggests that prison arts programs build self-confidence, self-discipline and creative thinking in participants, claiming that the results are quantifiable.

For example, one study sites, “Participants in the Actors’ Gang Prison Project have an 89 percent drop in in-prison infractions, ensuring safer prisons and resulting in individuals who are more ready to take responsibility for their behavior.”

Sabra Williams is executive director of Creative Acts, which provides arts education to incarcerated people. Williams co-wrote an article with actress/activist Jane Fonda on the subject: “The arts have been used as medicine, as a way to process the world and as a path to healing, not to mention developing the core skills that employers require. … We’ve seen a massive rise in empathy from individuals who participate that can’t be measured in numbers.

“We have seen rival gang members — mortal enemies — heal trauma and rediscover their common humanity working side by side in a prison arts program.”

The article, published in the Washington Post, includes this statement from one AIC participant, “Everything I do now is to make me a better person. I don’t feel like I’m in prison. My body is here, but my mind is free.”

Classical music and arts magazine, Limelight, shares, “Sound, and by extension music, is a primal form of communication. We can express emotion, tell stories, inspire empathy, trust and compassion through the sounds we make, and perhaps because of this, music is one of the most immediately visceral and communicative of all the arts.”

Limelight continues, “Numerous studies from around the world have shown that music can have a powerful impact on our psychology, but in recent years closer attention has been made to the effect music can have on our physiology.

“Some studies have shown that listening to music can have a unique effect on the brain, particularly in activating areas associated with emotion, motivation, planning and reward.”

Mullen concurs, “ I believe that choral singing is therapeutic for the body and mind, and I get a sense that the members of the AIC choir experience that when we perform.

“They come together as a group, and work together as a team to prepare for each performance. They share the nervousness and anticipation when we hold a concert as well as the fun and sense of accomplishment individually and as a group in the collaboration.

“There are not many opportunities like this given their surroundings. Many of them don’t miss a single class which tells me that they appreciate the opportunity.”

Regular attendance is just one aspect of discipline being developed during the project. Study and practice for this concert was essential.

Although many choir members could probably wing the opening song, “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” the next number was only accomplished with regular rehearsals and diligent memorization: “Tu scendi dalle stele” was performed in Italian as originally intended by composer, Saint Alphonus Ligouri.

Next, there was toe tapping, applause and enthusiastic appreciation of the drumming skills displayed during another number. But then the room grew still when Mullin’s compelling voice rang out during her solo, proclaiming, “Things I almost remember, … a song someone sings, ‘Once Upon A December,’ from a song by Liz Callaway.

The choir really came together for the following lines written by Jerry Herman: “For I’ve grown a little leaner, Grown a little colder, Grown a little sadder, Grown a little older, And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder, need a little Christmas now.”

The delivery of these lyrics was followed by a single audible whisper emerging from an anonymous individual in the assembled audience, “Yes, we do.”