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Music instructor discusses rehabilitation of prison inmates

| Wednesday, October 4, 2017

On Monday, Jody Kerchner of Oberlin College presented about the role music plays in the rehabilitation and reintegration process of prison inmates through her correctional choir program.

Originally a music instructor at the Oberlin College, Kerchner said she decided to contribute to the much-overlooked sphere of criminality in the U.S. and sought to challenge current procedures of rehabilitation in these areas.

“At the Grafton Reintegration Center, I have created a choir for those in federal prison,” Kerchner said.

She began her lecture by addressing the many problems the United States faces in incarceration rates and tendencies. Kerchner said that while incarceration rates continue to rise in the U.S., funding for education and services for mental illness have decreased.

“Many of [the] funds being lowered, including services providing aide for drug addiction and mental illness, are inhibiting the prevention that actually causes many crimes,” Kerchner said.

She said the U.S. accounts for 25 percent of all incarcerated people in the world — the largest proportion of incarcerated people in the world.

“This finding embarrasses the U.S. as a world leader,” Kerchner said. “We incarcerate the most people in the world, despite the fact that we don’t have the highest population of people.”

In addition, U.S. prisons contain an inordinate amount of black incarcerated people, Kerchner said.

“The number of those placed in prisons will continue to rise with tightening immigration policies and the revocation of DACA as well,” she said.

Kerchner said incarceration is often used in problematic ways in the U.S.

“Imprisonment has become the first response and first resort to any issue in this country, and that needs to change,” she said.

Instead, she said, services that center on community reintegration into society should become the focal point of punishment and criminal justice in America.

“There has been an enormous shift in awareness about protecting children and adolescents from entering prison walls,” Kerchner said.

She said the “school to prison pipeline” movement rightly focuses on creating positive citizens who stay away from incarceration. Her mission, alternately, has been to discover how to keep released criminals from entering prison a second time.

“Sixty-six percent of released inmates actually re-offend within two years of liberation, and 75 percent re-offend within five years,” Kerchner said. “These individuals are then reincarcerated into prison. This only perpetuates the unresolved issue of U.S. imprisonment.”

In response to this problem, Kerchner said she decided to initiate a choir at the Grafton Correctional Institution, which she titled the “Oberlin Music at Grafton Choir.” This choir consists of 20-25 inmates, whom she only refers to as “residents.”

“We meet for an hour and a half every Friday, and perform twice a year for friends and family,” Kerchner said.

The residents come together during this time to perfect their singing and performance skills, collaborating together in order to achieve an end goal, she said.

In the program, Kerchner asks the residents to “learn how to do things they don’t know how to do, both systematically and personally.” Residents are tasked with learning how to read music and sing at specific pitches and rhythms, all the while expressing their inner voices.

“The Oberlin Music at Grafton Choir provides [an] opportunity for residents to engage in community-building, cooperative group learning, discipline, enhanced self-esteem building and self-expression through music,” she said.

Kerchner said the residents have two personas.

“They have their first outer shell, which they have developed throughout time and experience, and which they must use in front of the prison guards,” she said. “Their second layer reveals itself when we sing.” 

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