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Singing in the Women's Prison

My choir, Cantigas, sang on Thursday at the Edna McMahan Women’s Prison in Clinton, New Jersey.  Thirty women took the day to participate.
Security was tight. We had to fill out forms weeks before the event so we could be checked out, and lists could be given to the prison staff.  Before getting on the bus to drive to the first event (at the maximum security part of the prison) we had to divest ourselves of everything except our driver’s license and a car key if we were driving. Some women even took off their wedding rings. This meant we had to leave our purses locked in the trunks of our cars.
The grounds, living quarters, and schedule reminded me of summer camp — at summer camp we wore uniforms, were herded around by counselors, had a schedule, and had to obey the rules. That was the closest I could imagine to prison. I note that their khaki and white uniforms were more attractive then the bloomers we wore in summer camp.  I liked summer camp, but would hate prison, of course, though it might offer a kind of order and protection that many of the women were not used to. That’s the bright side, if we were interested in rehabilitative prisons instead of punitive ones. Judging from our experience there, this one was rehabilitative, though I speak from ignorance.
Cantigas has members from all over the world; New Zealand, Poland, Finland, Argentina, Spain, France, Taiwan, and many other places. We also have very poor members and rich ones. It is as diverse as a choir could get, yet as we walked in I was conscious that to the inmates we looked like a gaggle of white women, our diversity hidden beneath our skin. The inmates themselves more diverse in skin color, but isn’t it silly that in America we judge diversity by skin color.
The inmates sang with us when our director, Joany, invited them to sing, and they were enthusiastically appreciative of the concert. At one point, the choir stepped aside while the husband of our accompanist, a professional violinist, played a few classical pieces. At first we thought we would sit along the sides of the gym, but the warden said we could sit wherever we pleased.
There was one beautiful young black girl sitting apart from the rest, who had been watching us sing out of the corner of her eye, suspicious, protective, hostile. When I sat next to her she was hunched away from me, but I said, “Hi!” and she turned to me with a bright smile. We chatted for a while, then settled in to listen to the music. Partway through, she made a chopping motion on three places of her arm, and, while looking straight ahead, made signs with her fingers which looked to me like sign language of the deaf, though she wasn’t deaf.  She also emitted a low whistle several times during the performance. I could not tell who was receiving her messages; it was done with obvious subtlety; that is, it was obvious that she was signing, but not obvious to whom.
Filing out of the gym, an inmate approached us from a side door, and shouted to the guard in the checkout cage, “I’m a murderer, not a thief. You won’t find my hands in nobody’s pockets!” She was laughing, proud not to be a thief.
In the minimum security building we had an equally warm reception.  Our director asked where people were from, both in the choir and in the audience, and when she said, “Anybody from Camden?” three woman whooped and shouted, “Yeah!!” Camden is one of the worst towns in the country, a sinkhole of crime, addiction, lawlessness, and poverty. Yet there they were, proud to be from there, wreathed in smiles at the mention of their home town.
The prison seemed to be well run, but what would we know. All inmates, maximum and minimum security, had recreational facilities, classrooms, space, and order. There were burly male guards and slight female guards, a warmly smiling matron, gates and locks and cages everywhere, and Kevlar vests.  Lurking in its rooms and hallways were danger and despair which tipped their hands with only quietly while we were there. Our concert was a break from the wary routine, but the guards knew their systems and enforced them without distracting themselves with song.
When we sang “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” some women wept — they were far from their own children, far from home, far from the imminent naked danger of their neighborhoods, far from their drugs (one woman was carrying a book, Helping You In Your Recovery from Addiction). One person who spoke as if he knew what he was talking about, while I don’t think he knew any more than I do, said that they do okay in prison; it’s when they get out that the problems start. Maybe.
We’ll go back next year and confront another roomful of stories, but then again everyone has story, in prison or out.