Mary Cohen brings music to prisons

'It boils down to restorative justice and transformative justice'

UI assistant professor Mary Cohen leads inmates and community volunteers during a practice with the Oakdale Prison Community Choir, Tuesday, March 3, 2009, at the Iowa Medical & Classification Center, in Coralville, Iowa.  (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
UI assistant professor Mary Cohen leads inmates and community volunteers during a practice with the Oakdale Prison Community Choir, Tuesday, March 3, 2009, at the Iowa Medical & Classification Center, in Coralville, Iowa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Two decades ago in a Kansas City suburb, a woman named Elvera Voth founded the East Hill Singers in the Lansing, Kan., Correctional Facility. The prison choir, which featured both inmates and community members, was unique in the nation — at least at the time.

Seven years later, in 2002, Mary Cohen was teaching in a Kansas elementary school when she read an article about the choir that motivated her to attend a performance.

“It was eye-opening,” Cohen, 47, said. “It planted a seed.”

Cohen went back to school and in 2007 earned a doctorate in music education from the University of Kansas. Her study involved research of music in prisons, and she submitted her dissertation on choral singing in prison.

“That was where I started digging into, what does it mean to have a choir in the prison?” Cohen said. “And it boils down to restorative justice and transformative justice.”

Instead of focusing on perpetrators and how to punish them, Cohen said, restorative justice looks at the harm caused and how to address it. Transformative justice considers the role institutions, systems and communities play.

“And choir really fits into that model,” she said.

When Cohen landed a job as an associate professor at the University of Iowa in 2007, her interest in the subject grew. With a joint appointment in the School of Music and the College of Education, Cohen in 2009 created a graduate seminar based at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville — known locally as the Oakdale Prison.

“That was the initial semester of the Oakdale Choir,” Cohen said. “The topic was about teaching arts in alternative concepts, and everyone who completed that semester sang as a charter member in the Oakdale Choir.”


Now in its eighth year, the choir continues to meet at the prison during the spring and fall academic semesters — with each semester bringing a new theme. The choir, which averages about 60 people, is about half inmates and half community volunteers.

Since its inception, more than 100 inmates have participated along with more than 100 community volunteers.

“Some are UI students, faculty and staff, and then others from the community,” she said. “It’s a well-represented group.”

The performances occur in the prison gym and, because space is limited to about 85 people, the group coordinates a guest list for family members, friends, potential employers, and even dignitaries and politicians.

Song selection centers on a chosen theme, and the choir has created and performed 93 original songs, Cohen said. It’s that relationship, with the words being sung that Cohen said can be — at least in part — restorative and transformative.

“With this factor of our bodies being the instrument, there are lots of issues related to the wellness and social standpoint,” she said.

Cohen said she’s in the first stage of a research project asking how the Oakdale Choir influences life in the prison. The next phase of her research will check in with former members to gauge the choir’s effect once they’re released or transferred.

Initial findings have shown improved self-esteem and motivation to get involved in other programming. Cohen also has seen an influence on members’ family relations.

One recent inmate reported having had no visits in seven years.


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“It was the choir concert that motivated his dad and sister to come to Coralville and attend,” Cohen said. “Now they have come to three or four concerts.”

Other research has shown a strong correlation between involvement in prison choirs and success after incarceration. And that makes them worth it — even with the extra hurdles and complications.

“We have to use careful consideration about what is appropriate,” Cohen said. “We look at what is for the greatest good — whatever that might mean for the people in the choir, their family, their victims and those in the community.”

This spring semester’s theme relates to self-expression and is called, “The Me Some People See” — the title of an original song created by an inmate and UI alumnus.

This semester’s full choir will meet for the first time Tuesday.


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