CRAWFORDVILLE, Fla. — Inmates stomped their feet and clapped along to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" recently at Wakulla Correctional Institution, with raucous whooping and hollering. The music, however, wasn't coming from a six-string wielding rock star with a southern growl but rather the elegantly-harmonized voices of inmates.
Inmate Robert McKinney welcomed a crowd of fellow inmates, prison administration and visitors to the facility's Visitor Park. In addition to thanking all those in attendance, McKinney closed his speech with a quote: "The measure of a man or woman is never what they have, it's how they use it."
McKinney and other participants in the Wakulla Work Camp's Music Therapy Program had been using their natural musical abilities, some refined and some less polished, rehearsing for three months in preparation for the recent lively choral performance.
Dubbed the Behind the Wire Choir, the group consists of about 20 inmates. A full band, including piano and keyboard, bass and electric guitarists, three acoustic guitars and a drummer, provided a musical canvas for the chorus.
The ensemble got underway with their rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, under the conducting of Lorna Segall, a doctoral student studying musical therapy at Florida State. Choir members watched with intent as Segall waved her hands with the rise and fall of each musical phrase, uniting their voices in harmony.
Segall is the driving force behind the Music Therapy Program's creation. Segall, who holds bachelor and master's degrees in vocal performance, introduced a level of mastery to a group of mixed musical backgrounds and talents.
"I would be lying if I said I wasn't a little nervous at first," Segall said of her initial reaction to arriving at the Correctional Institute's Work Camp. However, she was immediately embraced by inmates and administration alike.
"The administration is fantastic," Segall said. "As much as I've been thanked for my involvement, none of this would happen without the Department of Corrections being so supportive."
Getting the support of the administration didn't guarantee inmate enthusiasm. The final piece to the puzzle of coordinating a performance is the effort from the performers themselves. Luckily, Segall said that effort and enthusiasm has always been in abundance.
"A few of the gentlemen that sang solos today," Segall said, "Just 10 weeks ago would have never dreamed of doing something like that."
"This program builds the courage to get up in front of their classmates, fellow inmates and guests and perform."
Inmate Rodney Lyle is serving a 15-year sentence. He performed in the choir recently, with no prior musical experience. And he loved it.
"It was great," Lyle said, "It's something I'd always wanted to do. Learning how to harmonize and control your voice, it's fun."
The program has an enormous, positive influence on its participants, Lyle said.
"Things get stressful in here," Lyle said. "But when we go to this class, we smile a little. You need that. These classes that use creativity really complement the religious and education-based classes."
Josue Rosado is a driving force in the band. A musician since he was 5 years old, Rosado plays nearly every instrument.
"I was very active in music, and played in church bands, until I got caught up in some mess," Rosado said. "When I got here, I just let the Lord do what he had to do with me."
Rosado was able to lend his talents on the electric guitar, bass guitar and piano at the concert, showing off his musical chops. He says that, upon his release from Wakulla Correctional, he is going to make an effort to stay involved with the program.
"I'm going to help these guys on the inside from the outside," he said.
Inmate Michael Meers, who was playing acoustic guitar with the band, called his experience "unique."
"I used to play music on the street," Meers said. "I was a heavy alcoholic and drug user."
Meers explained that now, performing sober, he has begun to feel an excited nervousness, what many performers might call "stage fright" for the first time.
With many of the performers finding their voices, and learning and growing as they challenge themselves musically, Warden James Coker was on hand to lend encouraging words to the program in a closing statement.
"I've been doing this for 30 years," Coker said. "This is the first program I've seen at a work camp like this.
"I want to thank you for bringing this to these young men."
The icing on the musical cake for the Behind The Wire Choir members? They got to choose the songs they would perform.
They sang Garth Brooks' "Friends In Low Places" alongside songs like "This Little Light of Mine" and even the South African folk spiritual "Tshotsholoza."
"I have everyone write down songs they like at the beginning," Segall said of the eclectic set-list. "We like to keep it pretty unique."
Information from: Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, http://www.tdo.com