Inmate Blues | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Inmate Blues 

Lifers at the Utah State Prison find sanctuary through music.

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  • Stephen Dark

Volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints funnel through security at the Wasatch facility of the Utah State Prison on a recent Saturday. They are at the low-security wing to attend a recital at its LDS chapel by inmate-members of the Wasatch Music Education Program. The crowd has come to hear their praises literally sung by detainees hardened by decades behind bars.

It's only through the volunteers being present that prisoners are allowed to use the chapel to learn how to play music, rehearse and perform during their out-of-cell time. Many of them are serving life for sex crimes or murder. Volunteer Janet Henriksen acknowledges their past but chooses to ignore it. "The person that I am working with is very aware of what his crime is," she says. "I don't need to know what his crime is; they're there to try and get past that."

Convicts and volunteers mix in the pews. Inmate Ron Kelly introduces the proceedings, thanking the volunteers, including lay clergy, who typically teach family history or hold "firesides"—informal lectures and conversations about Mormon faith.

The 30-song recital, which stretches over three hours, opens with a rendition of "Under the Boardwalk" by men in white smocks with "UDC Inmate" stamped on the back. A few numbers later, Randy Noble sings, "The Gift to Be Simple," which begins, "It's the gift to be simple, it's a gift to be free." Henriksen says later the hymn is especially moving because it was a statement "about the reality of where they are; what it means to be there."

The twice-yearly recital sees those housed in Wasatch's D Block perform covers and original songs. This particular performance has the high-profile imprimatur of Mormon Tabernacle choir conductor Mack Wilberg conducting several numbers.

Wilberg plays down his volunteer role, highlighting the hard work inmates put into giving back to the community, like teaching others to sing and play donated instruments, to crocheting blankets for veterans at the VA emblazoned with F-16s and aircraft carriers. "You'd just die to see what they can create with plastic crochet hooks and donated yarn," Henriksen says.

The Wasatch Music Education Program was started in October 2006 by seven inmates who organized and conducted the first musical school meeting, prison spokesperson Maria Peterson says. Its current music director is financial planner retiree David Aguirre, who took up the reins after the sudden death from cancer of his predecessor Ken Green. Green was "an excellent musician and a bandleader in the Air Force for many years," Aguirre says. "Ken felt if we could give them an opportunity to be productive, they would be better able to face life in prison." And for those who paroled, "Maybe instead of buying a bottle, they'll go and buy a guitar."

Three performers wrote their own songs for the June recital. James Torres penned a Dylanesque number called "Stuck in Tomorrow's Yesterdays," while Garrett Witkamp wrote an acoustic piece titled "Hold On," and Casey Perkins one called "Let It Rain." The inmate-singer-songwriters, Aguirre says, each have something they wish to impart. "Garrett's songs usually deal with family, something he would like to tell his children that he hasn't been able to," while Perkins' songs chart through humility and a quest for "a higher power, something greater than himself that helps him get through life."

The convicts teach other instruments they've, in some cases, learned themselves at the prison. Kelly, the show's emcee and inmate counterpart to Aguirre, teaches the strings, having learned to play the violin under the tutelage of a fellow prisoner. Kelly is serving life for killing a 19-year-old woman in 1982. Others, such as classically trained pianist Roland Pitt, brought their years of studying with them to prison. Pitt is serving life for child sex offenses.

  • Stephen Dark

"The true character of a man is when you hear other men say, 'He's the same on the chapel as on the block,'" Henriksen says, referring to life inside the state prison. However, when occasional discipline issues emerge during rehearsals, volunteers are keenly aware that while inmates will not address them in the chapel for fearing of losing their privileges and access, on the block, violence can result from such disputes. "We are very sheltered from that dark side," Henriksen says.

Ron Kelly is a key element in keeping the peace between life in the chapel, where he's been employed by the chaplain as clerk for two years, and the unit where he's housed. "Ron has so much experience dealing with the inmates, he will oftentimes step in when we have discipline problems," Aguirre says. But when his unit is on lockdown for issues that do not involve him, Kelly nevertheless can't attend the music classes. "The music school struggles when he isn't here," Aguirre says. "It doesn't run as smoothly."

While the majority of the performers are facing long sentences, some of them are set to be released within the next few months to a year. One is Daniel Jerome, who sings White Lion's "When the Children Cry," which he dedicates to his oldest daughter. Afterward, he recalls putting his hand on his ex-wife's belly when she was pregnant and singing to her. "I love to sing," he says, wiping tears away. "This is my little piece of heaven."

Anthony Duran leads a muscular version of Grand Funk Railroad's classic, "Some Kind of Wonderful." The one-time Golden Glove fighter says he's been locked up on-and-off since he was 11 years old and did "a lot of time" in max before turning his life around through the prison's ConQuest drug rehabilitation program.

Introspective, quieter songs dominate the program's tail-end. Inmate Ron Warren half-sings in a hauntingly plaintive voice, Eric Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight" in memory of his deceased wife.

The recital offers inmates a chance to communicate with the outside world through the prison posting some of their performances online. That way relatives cannot only see them, but also, as Peterson says, know "they're trying to do something productive with their time."

Henriksen says that the best part of the recital is watching the inmates smile. "It takes them out of where they are for just a minute." No more so than the day's final performer, Pitt. Aguirre calls his prowess behind the ivories "unworldly. His renditions are just stirring—they touch the hardest of inmates."

Attendees in the chapel pews pay rapt attention as Pitt plays the "Presto Agitato" movement from Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. "It's stuff I've always wanted to get in my fingers," he later says. As the last notes fade, inmates and volunteers give him a standing ovation. He stands and smiles shyly.

Kelly looks around at his fellow inmates, cohorts and at the volunteers who come to the prison to help these men find some peace, grow a little and give back through music and pauses. "Sometimes living has hope involved," he says.

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