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In harmony: prison art festival brings together choirs from three Ohio correctional institutes

 Dozens of women and men hold up sunflowers made of tissue paper.
Allie Vugrincic
Incarcerated individuals from the Ohio Reformatory for Women, Pickaway Correctional Institution and Madison Correctional Institution flourish tissue paper sunflowers during a morning performance at the Sunflower Arts and Music Festival Tuesday at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. Choirs from the three correctional facilities sang together in the first-of-its-kind event.

Laughter and applause are not sounds usually associated with prison, but both were common on Tuesday at the Sunflower Arts and Music Festival at the Ohio Reformatory for Women.

For the first time ever, incarcerated women and men from three Ohio correctional institutions sang together in harmony.

Harmony Project Creative Director David Brown, who directs the three choirs, said hearing the men from Pickaway Correctional Institute and Madison Correctional Institute sing in-person with the women of ORW for the first time was “pretty amazing.”

“What was exciting to me was seeing and hearing the men hear the women behind them, the women hear the men's voices joining in for the first time,” Brown said.

“The weaker voices in the prison get lifted up by the stronger voices in the prison."
David Brown, Harmony Project creative director

Harmony Project is an Ohio organization that uses art to promote change and bring people together, including in prisons.

Brown said the ORW, Pickaway and Madison choirs aren't about whether the incarcerated men and women have musical talent. They're about choosing to add voices to a community.

“We're using music as a metaphor (and) not too subtle metaphor, by the way,” Brown said. “The weaker voices in the prison get lifted up by the stronger voices in the prison. The more the voices that can join together, the more powerful their voices are within the institution.”

 Several women hold up sunflowers made of tissue paper.
Allie Vugrincic
Members of the choir at the Ohio Reformatory for Women wave tissue paper sunflowers at the end of a song during the Sunflower Arts and Music Festival Tuesday at the ORW.

Breaking down barriers

Lakiesha Phillips, who recently had her sentence at ORW reduced, joined the choir a few months ago. The ensemble meets weekly on Thursdays.

“It is kind of an escape from here, which is a beautiful thing. It’s like you come into this room and everything outside of this room disappears for those two hours and it's like a reboot,” said Phillips, who is from Cleveland.

Phillips added that music is her happy place, and when everyone comes together and sings, “you get to see how much we have in common.”

Phillips said on Tuesday, the women and men sang together "without the drama and the chaos that everybody thinks that happens inside of these walls."

"They can see the peaceful, happy, joyous part of us. And I think that's the best part of us," she said.

Annette Dominguez, Director of Programming for The Harmony Project, said the prison program fits into the organization’s goal. “Our mission is to break down barriers, minimize the dissonance, sometimes create dissonance in order to make change,” Dominguez said.

She was working with the ORW as part of its Tapestry program even before the first Harmony prison choir started there just over a decade ago.

“And to see how it's grown, to see how important prison arts programing has become to the institutional staff and to the administration, they see the value and the importance of it,” Dominguez said.

Many voices

Harmony expanded its prison program to the Pickaway Correctional Institution. The choir there has joined the ORW choir for a performance before, but on Tuesday, the newest choir from Madison Correctional Institution sang with the others for the first time.

“We're making history today. Three different institutions have never all been together in this way,” Dominguez said.

Pickaway Warden Rochelle Moore brought 54 men to ORW. That involved getting them up at 3 a.m., showered, fed, and onto and buses in handcuffs, she said. For security reasons, the men weren’t told about the event ahead of time and weren’t told where they were going, Moore explained.

Despite the complicated logistics, Moore said, “it's absolutely worth it. And it means everything.”

She said the choir has changed the culture of the prison by bringing in volunteers from the outside.

“And what they'll see is that society will change, too, because they'll realize that they're more like these guys, than they are not like them,” Moore said.

“We're making history today. Three different institutions have never all been together in this way.”
- Annette Dominguez, Harmony Project director of programming

Deputy Warden Brad Caughman brought 23 men from the Madison Correctional Institute. He said a larger group had originally been involved, but they were limited by size constraints. He said the men who were able to come were happy to be there.

“They had no clue it was coming. So, I could see the excitement on their faces today,” he said.

He added that as the Harmony Project has unfolded at Madison Correctional, “you see so many people changed by events like this.”

 A crowd of women sit on the grass and watch a large women's choir perform in front of a building.
Allie Vugrincic
Women of the Ohio Reformatory for Women sit on the grass in the yard as they watch the ORW Harmony Project choir perform Tuesday afternoon at the Sunflower Arts and Music Festival. Men from Pickaway Correctional Institute and Madison Correctional Institute choirs also attended and performed during the event, but were seated separately in bleachers off to the side.

Celebrating the power of art

Tuesday morning, the full choir, nearly 300 strong, with the 200-some women from ORW – performed for Harmony Project volunteers and staff from all three institutions.

The women wore yellow t-shirts and the men wore green, all with a letter “H” for Harmony Project – though someone noted that "H" could also stand for hope.

The men and women were seated separately in the ORW gymnasium, but it was clear they were enjoying the rare opportunity to be in the same room.

When they sang, they flourished tissue paper sunflowers, acknowledging ORW’s decade-long relationship with the Sunflower Children's Hospice in South Africa. Technology didn’t cooperate for a planned video chat with the children in Africa, but the choirs recorded a performance of the song “Circle of the Sun” to send to them.

During the festival, art made by the women was on display, and in the yard, hundreds of paper sunflowers decorated the grass. Poetry performances were also featured.

In the afternoon, performances resumed in the yard for the entire ORW population. The women sat on the grass and cheered for the choir and the guest performers from the men’s facilities. They were also slated for a special show by Columbus-based band MoJo Flow.

“We're a bunch of women who have made mistakes. We're not mistakes.”
Detra March

“To whom much is given, much is required, and this has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Detra March, who produced the choir's show.

March, who is from Columbus, is incarcerated at ORW. She has been in the Harmony choir since its beginning. She said upon her release, the Harmony Project has offered her a position.

She said that Harmony Creative Director Brown created a statement for the choir that is often repeated: “Where I am does not define who I am.”

“We're a bunch of women who have made mistakes. We're not mistakes,” March said. “And this is a wonderful way to allow us to express ourselves.”

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.