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Kansas prison choir inspires discipline, joy

Saturday, January 25, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — On a summer-like day in November, native wildflowers are still blooming on a slope below the outdoor track and weight area of the oddly picturesque minimum security East Unit of Lansing Correctional Facility.

Cedric Johnson, 29, is doing pullups when a group of fellow inmates spot him and walk over.

"Hey, Lion King! What's up?"

Johnson flashes a full-on smile and says, "That's right. That's me. I get paid the big bucks."

The native of Louisiana is built like a running back. He played arena football for the Wichita Stealth, a now-defunct arena football team, but the wild lifestyle he adopted off the field landed him in jail on a sex charge.

At Lansing, Johnson passed on prison sports teams to sing lead tenor in the prison's classical choir, the East Hill Singers. He also sings frequently at worship services at the prison chapel for the many denominations. His voice is clear and sure, its timbre burnished by singing in church and school choirs since he was 6.

Someone filmed an East Hill Singers concert and put a clip of Johnson singing a solo in "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" on YouTube.

He's been "Lion King" ever since.

Today East Hill Singers is part of the nonprofit Arts in Prison, which sponsors many arts-related activities for inmates at prisons in Lansing, Leavenworth and Topeka. In addition to choirs, there are programs for writing, yoga and visual arts.

But East Hill Singers came first, founded in 1995 by a choir director from Newton, Kan., named Elvera Voth. The other arts programs were added later.

For the inmate singers, the choir is a dress rehearsal for life on the outside.

Learning musical roles, attending regular practices and performing in front of an audience require discipline, teamwork and commitment — the same qualities the men will need to hold down a job and avoid returning to crime when they are released.

It's working.

The recidivism rate for men who participate in the East Hill Singers from its inception in 1995 through 2013 is 18 percent, compared with 32 percent statewide in Kansas.

East Hill administrator Shannon Meyer says the choir is popular with inmates because it allows them to leave prison four times a year to perform in an area church and afterward enjoy a home-cooked meal provided by the congregation.

For inmates from the area, the performances offer an added bonus — a chance to hang out briefly with friends and family in a post-concert reception line.

Meyer says the choir is a powerful motivator for inmates at Lansing even before they join.

"A lot of guys want to participate, and to get in they have to be Level III."

To get to Level III, prisoners have to be "DR free" (no disciplinary reports) for 12 months. It is the highest classification, the same required to have a TV and be able to buy the best stuff in the canteen.

Then, after inmates are accepted into the choir, they have to have near-perfect attendance at twice-weekly practices to be able to board the unmarked white shuttle vans on performance days.

Outside the closed door of the second-floor chapel at the East Unit, Leigh Lynch, executive director of Arts in Prison, smiled at an inmate rushing up the stairs, 10 minutes late.

As the prisoner mumbled an excuse, Lynch guided him by the elbow back down the stairs and said, "This is the last practice before the winter concert, and we have missed you at the other ones. Let's go talk about what needs to happen for you to sing in the spring concert."

Inside the chapel, 31 men in dark blue jeans, gray sweatshirts with their names printed in block letters on the back and red knit stocking caps sang the opening verse of "Ave Maria."

Then conductor and artistic director Kirk Carson stopped them, saying, "Big, fat vowels!"

Carson opened his mouth wide, like a clown. Some of the men shook their heads and laughed, then mimicked the sounds he was making.

"Yes! Yes, yes!" Carson said.

Carson took over as artistic director and conductor in 2006, when founder Voth retired. Carson has a performing arts degree from Oklahoma City University and sang opera professionally in Europe and the United States. His work with the prison choir fits around a full-time information technology job.

Meyer says Carson gives more than music to the inmates.

"His humor, his expectations, the way he pushes them — he has become part of the their lives. For many of the men, he is the role model they never had."

About 160 people made their way on a bright but bitterly cold Sunday afternoon in November to Open Door Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan., for the East Hill Singers' fall concert. The faces in the pews are white, black and Latino.

Prison employees sip coffee around the perimeter of the room; they volunteer on their days off so the men from Lansing can perform.

When the concert begins, each of the 14 songs is introduced by an inmate who has volunteered to share a personal story as well as the history of the musical piece.

Jeffrey Campbell, 44, of Kansas City, Kan., introduces "A Place in the Choir" with a tribute to how choir director Carson found a skill in Campbell.

"I didn't think I could sing. Being in the choir has given me a sense of belonging and pride. It made me see we all have a place in society."

When Campbell said he was going to be released in two weeks, and this would be his last concert wearing a blue shirt, the crowd broke into warm applause.

After the last song, the inmates lined up in front of the stage and nearly everyone in the audience, not just family members, surged forward to shake the inmates' hands, pat them on the back, some offering hugs as well.

For inmate singer Michael Mims, 38, from Wyandotte County, that is his favorite part of the concerts.

"It feels like freedom, because real freedom is acceptance."


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