October 19, 2013

Music, writing project gives Maine prisoners a voice

Creative voices of incarcerated Maine youth and adults sing with determined spirit.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

Cassandra Farris says she felt uninhibited and found herself expressing long-silent feelings through a writing project at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Marion Anderson talks at the York County Jail about her songwriting and the classes she took to learn the process while she was in the Maine Correctional Center in Windham.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Additional Photos Below

The recordings were made in prison, with the inmates singing.

“We’re not trying to save the world here,” Svendsen said. “Our goal was to create a dialogue between the kids and the adults.”

That’s because 70 percent of the children of adult prisoners become prisoners themselves, he said, citing national statistics. “That’s staggering. These are not at-risk kids. They are beyond risk. They are already in the system. They’re looking up to adult inmates as their role models: ‘These people are cool, because they do not fit into society very well, either.’ ”

The hope is that the adults see something in the kids’ writing that reminds them of themselves when they were younger. They can then turn those thoughts into a song or story that might help illuminate the situation and offer a different perspective.


Although it is not unusual for arts groups to work to have inmates express themselves, working with prisoners to make recordings while they are incarcerated is less common.

The idea of helping the next generation is something that appealed to Cassandra Farris, 24, of Portland, who also is serving time at the Southern Maine Re-Entry Center.

She knows the prison routine well. She was convicted of a burglary to support her drug habit when she was 19 and sentenced to seven years, with all but two suspended. She did her time, got out and had a baby. A probation violation put her back in prison.

The child is now living with Farris’ grandmother.

She identified with a poem about heartbreak, alcohol and drugs, written by a girl at Long Creek. “That’s the story of my life,” she said.

Another Long Creek inmate wrote about helping his sister raise her three kids. They lived together in a trailer without heat or hot water.

Farris put herself in his shoes, and developed the theme by remembering “stuff that I related to in my childhood and in my past.”

The process of putting words to paper felt empowering, and the recording process gave her goosebumps, she said.

“The class brought me out of my shell a lot. I’m not shy, but I don’t like a lot of people knowing my hardships,” Farris said. “But that class, I was really uninhibited. I just let go.”

She felt like she was doing something to help the kids at Long Creek by listening to them and working with them to focus their writing. In the end, she likely benefited as much as they did.

Farris has spent a lot of time reflecting on her bad decisions and how she ended up in prison for the second time, with a 2-year-old on the outside.

“It’s no type of life,” she said. “It’s not living.”

By looking inside herself, she was able to say things she has never said before.

“I’m putting stuff down on paper that I have never said out loud,” she said.

Svendsen said the goal of Guitar Doors is simply to get people to listen to the inmates. This project is not about rehab, but about understanding.

Inmates are easy to ignore, because they are behind bars and barbed wire. But the vast majority of them are getting out. When that happens, we have to deal with them, he said.

“Whether we like it or not, these people are part of our society,” he said. “They are our cousins, our daughters, our uncles and our fathers, and they are coming back. The question is, are they coming back better or the same?”

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:bkeyes@pressherald.comTwitter: pphbkeyes

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Additional Photos

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The Maine Correctional Center in Windham is where inmates Marion Anderson and Cassandra Farris recorded music for a CD of songs and stories written by themselves and by other incarcerated and recently released youths and adults.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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