Alaska’s Prison Orchestra

About the guest writer: Nathan Havey is based in Anchorage, Alaska and works to support Arts on the Edge.

On December 8th, 2012 nearly 600 people crowded the gym at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River, Alaska.  For many of them, it was their first time in a prison.  For others, the annual holiday concert has become a much-anticipated tradition.  But for the 35 women who play in the orchestra, December 8th was their one day in 2012 to transform from canary yellow-clad inmates, largely invisible to the world outside, to elegant performers in concert black at the center of the community’s attention and respect.

Pati Crofut founded the orchestra in 2003.  She had been learning to play cello in her son’s grade school orchestras, but when he went to high school, Pati ran out of orchestras.  Janice Weiss, the education coordinator at Hiland Mountain at the time, suggested that Pati could start an orchestra at the prison.  Dean Marshall, the Superintendent until recently, had a reputation for valuing educational programming and agreed to give the orchestra a try.
Sarah Jane Coffman, one of the original members had been talking with some of her fellow inmates about starting some kind of music program, and applied immediately.  So did many other women.  Rehearsing with a conductor on Saturday’s and practicing whenever they could, the women of Hiland Mountain began to express themselves through music.  
Some found that music could express what their words could not.  Others realized that during practice they would forget for a while that they were in prison.  All of them found a reliable source of joy and beauty to help them serve their time.
Ticket sales from the annual holiday concert fund the entirety of the program’s expenses.  And in 2012, the concert was split into two performances for the public to accomodate the crowd.  There is also a performance for the inmates before the public is allowed in.  Sarah Jane Coffman, who has performed in each of the 9 holiday concerts, was released in 2011, and returned again this year to perform – this time, as a free woman, and an example for her prison community.
The holiday concerts also bring in guest artists from the Anchorage symphony and some big names from around the music world.  Zuill Bailey, the world-renowned cellist, joined the Highland Mountain Orchestra for the concert this year.  Playing on a cello that was made when Bach was 8 years old, his hauntingly beautifully music filled the gym and washed over the inmates and the public, carrying away all their troubles – at least for a while.
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