Documentary Tells the Story of a Very Special Prison Choir
Conducting Hope tells the inspiring story of the East Hills Singers at Lansing Correctional Facility in Kansas. Producer and director Margie Friedman talks about the only men’s prison choir in the country to perform outside prison walls.
Run by the nonprofit organization, Arts in Prison, Inc., the choir is also comprised in part by volunteer community members who serve as role models as well as former inmates who continue to sing with the choir after release. The film movingly portrays how this group of present and former prisoners, together with the community volunteers, can forge a successful path back into society.
What made you decide to do a film about a prison choir?
Several years ago, I was on the Internet exploring unique choirs for another project and wondered if there were any prison choirs. I discovered that there were and contacted several. I was intrigued by how music could play a therapeutic role in the rehabilitation of inmates.
Why did you select the East Hills Singers?
The East Hills Singers run by Arts in Prison, Inc. had so many interesting layers to it: they are the only men’s prison choir to perform outside prison walls, and they include volunteer community members as well as former inmates. I was so impressed by their dedication and the goal of the choir—to use the power of music to change inmates’ lives. Little did I know at the time that this would become a six-year passion project and that when the grants ran out, I would fund the film myself in order to complete it—the typical fate of most documentary filmmakers.
What experience did you have with choral music before beginning the film?
Like so many of us, I was a member of my high school choir. It was such an important part of my high school experience, giving me a place to express my emotions and escape whatever was going on at home or in school. For a few hours each week, I was transported. I could totally relate to the inmates’ feelings when they’re up there singing: the sense of emotional freedom, personal accomplishment, and camaraderie. I also know how hard it is to pull together a group of singers, especially when many have never sung in a choir before. My admiration for the East Hills Singers choir director, Kirk Carson, and Arts in Prison, Inc. is enormous.
What did you learn about singing and choral music through the process?
It’s not so much what I learned but what was reinforced. Making Conducting Hope confirmed my own belief that singing together touches us on a deep, emotional level. I’d never been in a prison and certainly didn’t know what to expect from a prison choir. What I found was a choir director just as passionate and dedicated to getting the most out of his singers as my high school teacher. And, for the inmates it was a chance to express their emotions in an environment that has little, if any, outlet for that.
What I did discover is how much group singing can contribute to learning important life skills: teamwork, responsibility, and the ability to stand-up before an audience. As part of the performances, the inmates introduce the songs and as Kirk Carson, the choir director, pointed out, “if they can do that, they can go on a job interview.” The prison warden, a strong advocate of the choir, believes the choir provides a unique opportunity for the men to succeed at something. Many have failed at school, at work, and in relationships, but singing together is something they can do without fear of failure. The point of the choir isn’t to win any awards, it’s to simply get the most possible out of these inmates and in the process, increase their sense of self-esteem and promote a better way of life. Even inside prison, the choir plays a role in keeping the inmates less volatile. When they return from a performance, they’re calmer and have a greater sense of wellbeing.
One former inmate who has continued to sing with the choir said that while in prison, singing made him feel like he was human in a place where there is little humanity. Now, of course, recent scientific studies show that to be the case—that group singing reduces depression and does in fact, increase overall wellbeing. Personally, as I watched the men rehearse and then, perform in a concert, I was struck by the joy they experience while singing. They could have been any group of singers from anywhere. You forget that they’re inmates. You just hear the music. Seeing the choir perform doesn’t mitigate the crimes these men have committed. It just makes you think about how group singing can have therapeutic value and be as strong a means of self-expression as any art form.
How important is that interaction among the inmates and the community members and former inmates?
Very important. The inmates I interviewed in the film said over and over again how much they appreciate the support of the community choir members. They never feel judged. The choir’s dedicated director, Kirk Carson, says he doesn’t know what crimes these men have committed and he doesn’t want to know. He’s there to create music.
The community members play another important role—that of mentor. Through singing together, they share a common bond with these inmates, opening the door to more meaningful conversation. The former inmates who choose to remain with the choir serve as role models as well, inspiring other inmates to make positive choices after they’re released. Most important, the choir provides the former inmates with continuity, easing their own transitions between the “inside” and “out.”
How has the East Hills Singers changed the lives of the inmates who participate?
The East Hills Singers gives the inmates hope. Again, for many, it’s the first time they’ve done anything positive. It gives them a real sense of accomplishment. The choir is also a lifeline to those reintegrating back into society. The ultimate purpose of the choir is to reduce the rate of recidivism. The national rate is more than 50%. The rate for East Hills Singers is 18%.
What impact does performing outside prison walls have on the inmates?
Conducting Hope follows the inmates as they prepare for an upcoming concert and then, perform before hundreds of people including, family members and friends. The concert, held at a church in Kansas City, is a chance for loved ones to see them not as inmates, but—for a few hours—as ordinary men. Aside from the color of their shirts, the inmates and community volunteers are one choir. The audience has the opportunity to greet the inmates afterwards in a receiving line that is incredibly emotional for many of the inmates.
What do you hope that viewers will take away from your documentary?
Clearly, there are no easy answers to the problem of recidivism among the prison population and certainly, programs like East Hills Singers are only one small part of the solution. But, I hope the film generates discussion. As Arts in Prison, Inc. points out, these men are going to get out and they are going to come back into our communities. How they return impacts all of us. That’s the “message” part of the film. The other aspect of the film is that viewers will be inspired and entertained by the concert itself—and definitely impressed by the quality of the musical performance. Keep in mind that most of the inmates have never sung in a choir before. Ultimately, the choir is proof that music can make a difference in people’s lives.
What do you hope music educators will take away from your documentary?
I hope music educators will be encouraged to start similar programs in their own communities—whether it’s with inmates or other underserved members of the community. It isn’t an easy endeavor. As a nonprofit, Arts in Prison, Inc. depends on the community for financial support. While not everyone is going to take something like this on, I hope that those in the music community help sustain those who do.
Conducting Hope began airing on PBS across the country in November 2013 and is now available to educational institutions and libraries as well as individual consumers. You can learn more about the film, read reviews and see clips at conductinghope.com.
For more on prison choirs. see Chorus America's Spring 2014 Voice article "Finding Freedom Through Song."