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Prison choir to perform at St. Joseph Church in Shawnee

The East Hill Singers, minimum security inmates from Lansing Correctional Facility, have performed concerts outside prison walls for 26 years. They will perform from 4-5:30 p.m. on Nov. 20 in St. Joseph Parish, 11311 Johnson Dr., Shawnee. COURTESY PHOTO

by Joe Bollig

SHAWNEE — Can music point to a better way for a person?

St. Augustine of Hippo thought so.

“Music,” he said, is “given by God’s generosity to mortals having rational souls in order to lead them to higher things.”

Some men who are on the way to higher things through music — the East Hill Singers, minimum security inmates from Lansing Correctional Facility — will perform from 4-5:30 p.m. on Nov. 20 in St. Joseph Parish, located at 11311 Johnson Dr., Shawnee.

The 14 inmates will be joined by nine formerly incarcerated community volunteers in their performance. They will be directed by Kirk Carson, a civilian with a long career in music, who has been the conductor since 2008.

This performance is free and open to the public.

The East Hill Singers, named for a portion of the state prison in Lansing that no longer exists, was formed in 1994 as part of the Arts in Prison program, said Leigh Lynch, executive director of the program.

“The East Hill Singers is our first program and has been running ever since,” she said.

The group held its first performance in 1996 and is the only prison choir in the nation that regularly travels to perform in public, she said.

The choir members are all convicted felons serving time in Lansing for committing a variety of crimes. During the concert, the inmates will be supervised by prison personnel.

They’re a little nervous about the upcoming performance.

“Everyone coming [to the church] to perform are first-timers,” said Lynch. “Many [previous] singers have been released and we have a whole new population.”

Usually, the singers start off with little to no experience singing in public. But this time, one of the singers is an actual, choir-trained tenor who was in state-level competition at the high school level.

“I told him, ‘You are the rarest of gems,’” said Lynch.

There have been no problems in the 26-year history of the East Hill Singers performing in public, said Lynch. In fact, it has produced positive results.

“It has a real significant impact,” said Lynch. “We did a recidivism (tendency to re-offend) survey a year or so back, and of all the inmates who have sung with the choir, we have an 8 percent recidivism rate compared to the state’s percentage of 32 percent.”

Both the inmates and the community benefit from the concerts.

“I am convinced the reason the East Hill Singers do so well when they are released is because, for a period of time before they are released, they come out from behind the walls and perform these concerts,” said Lynch.

“They get to go back into the community, meet people in the community,” she continued, “and it takes a lot of their fear away. Likewise, it takes away a lot of the fear of community members who are a little apprehensive about having these people return to their neighborhoods.”

The inmates are grateful for the opportunity to perform in public and “overwhelmed” by the kindness with which they are received, said Lynch. There will be a receiving line where the public can thank them after the performance.

“For them to come out in public and have people they don’t know walk up, congratulate them and shake their hand, and tell them they’ve done a good job is huge,” said Lynch. “And I think the fact that they can interact with people they don’t know gives them hope they’ll be able to [return] to the community and live a social life.”

The parish will offer a special treat, a catered barbecue dinner, to the inmates after their performance, said Deacon Mark Mies. He helped feed the inmates when they performed at the parish twice before.

“We’ll get out real plates and silverware, and eat dinner with them,” said Deacon Mies. “Several of those guys expressed to me in the past how grateful they were just to feel normal, to sit with people and have a great dinner.”

The dinner is for the inmates and a few parish staff. It is not open to the public.

Matt Winterhalter, director of music at St. Joseph Parish, hopes that a lot of people will come to the performance despite there being a Chiefs-Chargers football game that day.

“Supporting the arts is always valuable,” said Winterhalter, “but as Catholics, we are called to live out the corporal works of mercy, one of those [being] ‘visiting the imprisoned.’

“This is a perfect opportunity to live out that work of mercy. While we are not going to the prison, we are conveniently having the prisoners come to us, to support their rehabilitation.”

The performance will be live-streamed and can be viewed at:

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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