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Prison choir gives singers a way out and a chance to shine
Outside the dining room at the Assembly Inn at Montreat Conference Center Sept. 6, several dozen people – mostly women – moved around freely, visiting and conversing before the luncheon to benefit Ministry of Hope.
Alone inside the large dining room, 18 female inmates of the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women, sat bunched together, talking while they waited for their lunch to be served. Watched over by prison personnel and chatted up by members of the Swannanoa prison’s chaplaincy committee, the women did as they were told. But they seemed happy to be out in public and eager to put on the concert they’d been rehearsing.
The Swannanoa Correctional Center, a minimum custody prison, has a choir, one that performs during this annual fundraiser for Ministry of Hope, a community-funded chaplaincy program that raises money to employ chaplains at the prison. Every other month, the choir receives an invitation to sing at an area church. For the singers, many of whom have worked for years to get to this level of freedom, the outings are an opportunity to taste the outside world while sharing a gift they love to give – singing.
On Sept. 6, they were going to sing two numbers that borrowed from white and black gospel music. Two of the women agreed to talk about what the choir – and the excursions – mean to them.
State law prohibits the prison from releasing the women’s full names, so both women introduced themselves by their first names. Both are named Regina. The older of the two suggested they be differentiated as “Regina Young” and “Regina Old.”
Regina the Younger is serving time for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. She’s serving a 14-year sentence and gets out in 2019. Regina the Older is in for second-degree murder and gets out in 2020.
Having “rededicated my life to the Lord,” Regina the Older worked for a lot of years to get to minimum custody. Staying out of trouble, she worked up to the level that allows her to take trips outside of prison. That made singing in the choir possible. She joined in April.
Singing has always been her refuge, she said. When she was a little girl growing up in Rutherford County, she sang gospel music in church with her mother. She sang other times too, in her bedroom and often outside, to console herself after being molested or raped. It was a way to escape, she said. And, in a way, it still is.
“For me, it’s the projection of that peace that God has given me, the joy that he has given me despite the circumstances or whatever’s going on in life,” she said.
Regina the Younger was also molested as a young girl, she said. Biracial, she grew up in a difficult family situation. “To find comfort, I would go around singing, or sing in the shower. I sang in church a lot, with my mom. It was something else to have my mind on, than what I was going through.”
She’s fine singing to herself, but singing in front of others scares her. She joined the choir in July in part to help her open up.
“I’m kind of coming out of my shell more, singing in front of people,” she said.
“She has a beautiful voice,” Regina the Older said.
The singers themselves direct the choir, depending on the song and a particular vocalist’s strength, the Reginas said. The choir picks its own songs and is, for the most part, self-directed (two volunteers come in once a week to help out; without them, the choir can’t meet).
The choir helps the women develop their musical and leadership skills, according to the Rev. Shannon Spencer, a prison chaplain who accompanied the women to the luncheon
“And this,” she said, indicating the dining hall in which they were about to perform, “is where it’s celebrated.”
“Aren’t these awesome women?” Carole Tyler, a volunteer who works with the group, said of the Reginas. Tyler has a couple of degrees in music, but she said she’s learning a lot from the choir which sings acapella. “They fill up a room or a cathedral or whatever they need to,” she said.
While the other women got up to fill their ice tea glasses, Regina the Younger addressed what singing in the choir meant to her. This was her first time performing with it. “It’s my chance to share my gift and show others how I praise God and how I worship,” she said. “Worshipping God to me is to sing.”
“For me,” Regina the Older said, “it makes me feel whole in an otherwise dehumanizing world. It helps me to transition into what society’s going to be when I get out. It takes me you away from that dehumanizing feeling.”
“We all share a common bond – we share each other’s pain,” Regina the Younger said. “When we go to choir practice or we go out (into the world), it means so much because we’re in such a negative environment all the time. It means so much to be able to do something so positive together. It makes you feel valuable, special. It reminds you that you’re …”
“ … human,” the other Regina said.
“Yeah, that you are somebody,” the younger one said. “For us to be asked to sing somewhere, when we’re incarcerated, it means a lot.”