Alaskan Women’s Orchestra – In prison

In times of violence, I look for hope.  Here it is:


(AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)

Sarah Jane Coffman is serving a 14-year sentence for murder in Eagle River Alaska's Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility.  Yes, she is a perpetrator of an awful crime.  But as so many of us know who have worked behind bars, Sarah is not only the face of crime.  As reported by Mark Thiessen  in the Associated Press, she founded the prison orchestra in 2003.  She had her debut as a member of the free world when the orchestra performed two annual holiday concerts on December 8th, 2012.

Sarah plays the viola in what can only be described as a fairly welcoming environment– for a prison.  She was released in February but actually has driven every Saturday to rehearse with the orchestra.  She plays with women who became her friends behind bars.  Not unusual for females.Many make bonds and connect deeply to bare the time, time often away from their children. Nearly 70% of women in prison are mothers– at Framingham Women's Prison when I was there, it was 80%.

Thiessen reports that "This year's concert is also a milestone for another founding member, cellist Dana Hilbish, convicted for the 1991 murder of her common law husband in Ketchikan. She received a 60-year sentence, with 25 suspended.  It will be her last performance. Hilbish has been granted parole early next year."  She felt that the orchestra has been a family for her.

An outside artist named Pati Crofut, who directs the Anchorage-based Arts on the Edge, began directing the orchestra nine years ago. She encourages long-termers to be part of the musical experience since it takes time to learn how to play classical music.  There are 30 members now.

A nice observation by Conductor Gabrielle Whitfield, an Anchorage public schools teacher, "They always say the greater a person's sadness in life, the greater their capacity for joy," she said. "I totally find that to be true here."  In my experience this is true,as women behind bars create art to heal, touch deep parts of themselves and learn to get outside of their crimes.

To listen to the orchestra and hear more of their insights about art and music, go here for a glorious video. 

And for another piece of hope, read my piece about Dolly, a woman I taught at Framingham Women's Prison who became my friend, and who gave me "A Gift From prison."  Dolly below, pictured as Lysistrata in our prison production by the same name:

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