Prison "Walls"

Synopsis

A touching collection of songs inspired, composed, or sung by prison inmates. A work in progress.

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Con-Quest program aims to put drug offenders on better footing


By Carma Wadley



Deseret News senior writer
Published: Thursday, Sept. 27, 2001 2:41 p.m. MDT
The power of music is this: It can take you somewhere else. The right kind of music can uplift you, inspire you, transport you to a better sphere.

But the principle of music is this: Creating the sounds that can move you takes time, commitment, effort. There are no shortcuts.

"There is no instant gratification in music," says Dan Whitley. "You can't just pick up an instrument and play. It may take years before you see the payback for your work. You can't cheat at music."

That's important for kids just starting out to know; it's important for their parents to know; and it's an especially important message for the inmates at the Utah State Prison enrolled in a program called Con-Quest to know.

Con-Quest is a program for drug offenders, and Whitley has been working with them for the past year or so, teaching both the enjoyment music brings and the effort it requires.

Whitley has spent his life around music — as a bass player for the Lettermen in the 1960s; and, after moving back home to Salt Lake in the '70s, as a member of the popular group SunShade 'n' Rain; and more recently as a founder and teacher of the Notable Youth Foundation. And he has also seen what substance abuse can do in the lives of personal friends. "It's just an awful thing," he says.

But he also began working in the prison (he worked in the Timpanogos facility before moving to the Con-Quest program) because of his son.

Shortly after the Whitleys moved back to Utah, their 5-year-old son was diagnosed with brain cancer. The boy died at age 13.

"When you have a hole in your heart like that, you have to fill it with something. I see the boys here, and their bodies work fine, but the rest of them is messed up." Whitley wants to make a difference, and he knows that music can help.

"Performing can give you a natural high, one that is so real and so lasting — if you pay your dues beforehand."

Both the success and the potential of the music program at the prison were showcased on a recent morning when Con-Quest inmates gathered for a special meeting that featured Michael Ballam, a professor of music at Utah State University and director of Utah Festival Opera, as guest speaker and included songs by the inmate choir Whitley has been working with.

The morning began with the presentation of some musical instruments that had been donated to Con-Quest: a keyboard and some guitars. Although Whitley brought in a group of musicians to accompany his choir on this morning, they ordinarily sing a cappella, he said. "Now, as some of them learn to play these instruments, we will be able to provide our own accompaniment."

Not only that, he said, but those who successfully complete the program and are released will have a useful skill. In fact, he hopes to organize a group that paroled inmates could perform with. They are changing their lives here, he said, but it needs to continue out in the world.

Ballam began by talking about harmony. "You can't make harmony alone," he said, "you have to work with someone else." And yet, harmony is what adds so much beauty to music.

He also talked about what music can do for a person, "and not just as entertainment. I believe the world would not be the same without music. It has the power to do so much more than just offer words and notes."

He shared some examples of that from his own life: a time when his grandmother sang to and soothed a frightened boy; a time when he "took sunshine to Aunt Mary" at a nursing home with a song; how music has helped him cope with the birth of a son with spina bifida.

He talked about how science is increasingly learning how music affects the brain and how it stimulates activity and thought.

Of course, "not just any music can do that," he said, "it has to be special music." Music, he said, can take you to a different place. "The wrong kind of music can make you angry and vengeful. Don't go there. You want music to take you to a better place. Don't listen to songs of despair."

It is simply not possible to feel sorry for yourself while you listen to Beethoven, Ballam said. "I believe Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the greatest piece of music ever written. And if you listen to that, you realize that joy is a choice, not a condition."

What gives music the power to move us so? "If I had to put a name to it, I would call it 'the spirit,' " said Ballam. "The spirit of what? You put a name to it. The spirit of God. The spirit of nature. The spirit of love. I know that it is in some music." Listen for it, he said, and it can change your life.

And changing lives is what Con-Quest is all about, said Marci Remington, who works as a therapist with the program. One of the songs the choir sang, she said, has been adopted as the theme song for the group: "Lean on Me." "That's what we're all about — helping each other." Music, she said, "is a practical application of everything we talk about. It takes discipline. But it's more than talk, it's doing."

And meetings like this are so important, she said. "To be in the presence of accomplished musicians, to realize the good things that can come from music, to know that the kind of music you listen to makes a difference — those things can touch hearts and change lives."

Music teaches self-control and working with others, added Howard Stephenson, state senator from Draper. "Those are basic skills that are so important for living in a free society. I'm impressed with the commitment to this program."

A response from two of the inmate peer leaders revealed some of the impact Con-Quest and the music program have had. "The work of these people has not gone unnoticed," said Brad Allen and James DeLuna. "This is not just another program. Lives are being changed. We are seeing that what once were dreams are bright possibilities. Things have come into our lives that we never thought possible."

That is both the power and the promise of the program, of dedicated leaders — and of music.


USU's Michael Ballam performs at the prison. - Michael Brandy, Deseret News


Utah State Prison inmates get acquainted with donated musical instruments as part of the music-oriented Con-Quest program, which is led by Dan Whitley.  - Michael Brandy, Deseret News


The inmate choir has discovered that harmony doesn't happen alone -- it takes teamwork.  - Michael Brandy, Deseret News


E-MAIL: carma@desnews.com



Drawing from an inmate at the Utah State Prison




From left to right: Dan and Bonnie Whitley, Barbara Layden, Judy Schiffmann, Richard Paul Evans, and Frank Layden attending a Christmas Box House event following an appearance at the Utah State Prison.




Dan and his vocal group, Richard Paul Evans, author of The Christmas Box, visited the Utah State Prison. He spoke for an hour and gave free copies of his book to the inmates in the name of his foundation, Christmas Box House, a home for abused children. Dan and his group sang songs and gave away CD's for their joint Christmas event. Later Richard included his prison visit experience in one of books.