A group of men have gathered in a nondescript meeting room. A mix of ethnicities, backgrounds, and ages, they wear matching light blue shirts. As they go through vocal warm-ups and begin to sing, they look and sound like a typical men’s choir from anywhere in America, practicing a variety of traditional and contemporary choral music, along with the occasional rap. But their blue shirts are, in fact, the uniforms worn by men at the Lansing Correctional Facility — a state prison located an hour from Kansas City, Kansas. The choir members have committed everything from drug related crimes to burglary, rape, and murder. They are failures in the eyes of society. But as they raise their voices, the men are in harmony for perhaps the first time in their lives.
Conducting Hope is a documentary film that reveals several dramatic stories behind the sound of the “East Hill Singers” — the only secular prison choir in the country that performs beyond prison walls. Conducting Hope follows the choir’s director, Kirk Carson, as he works tirelessly to get these men ready for a live performance. It’s a daunting task, since most have never sung in a choir before.
For Kirk — a former opera singer who, by day, is currently an IT expert for the government — the job is filled with frustration, but his passion never waivers, even when the choir is less than perfect. He doesn’t know what crimes the men have committed. He doesn’t want “to judge them or have them judge me.” Kirk’s mission is simply to have the choir succeed. Why does he do it? Perhaps it’s because his own father was an inmate. He doesn’t know and doesn’t care.
The purpose of the choir is twofold. First, it’s about performing great music; secondly, it’s about teaching the men how to turn their lives around by instilling hope. If they can succeed at this, they can transfer those skills to the real world: discipline, responsibility to others, working towards a common goal, the feeling of accomplishment. For many of these men, it changes the way they think, and if they can think differently, they have a better chance of success in the real world.
The film introduces three inmates. With his long brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, Michael B. is in prison for the third time for the unlawful manufacturing of methamphetamines. This is his first time in the choir and the only time he’s decided to turn his life around. Darryl P. is serving a nearly fifty-year sentence for aggravated robbery, kidnapping, and attempted first degree murder. His mother never misses a choir performance; when his older brother attends for the first time, it fills Darryl with pride. Music has always been a part of Kurt I.’s life. A drug addict and alcoholic incarcerated for theft, the choir gives him hope for the future. His is one of the strongest voices in the choir as he nears the end of his second three-year prison sentence.
Aside from performing outside of prison, the other thing that makes the East Hill Singers unique is that half the choir is comprised of community volunteers. While the men in prison are practicing, forty other men from the Kansas City area are rehearsing the same songs separately. The two groups meet for only one rehearsal right before the performance. Kirk never knows what he’s going to get; it’s always a race against time to mesh the two groups. All that distinguishes the two groups is the color of their shirts, blurring the line between inmate and civilian.
When inmates are released from prison, they are invited to remain as part of the community singers. David J. is a former inmate who has chosen to continue on with the community choir. David was convicted of aggravated robbery and served two years at Lansing. Today, he runs his own handyman and contracting business. David says, “The choir gave me a lot of self-esteem that I’d lost over the years.” By continuing to come and sing with them as a civilian, he’s able to give something back, repaying the volunteers for the incredible positive impact they had on him when he was behind bars, as well as during the five years since he’s been out of prison.
Shawn W., a former inmate who was part of the choir for seven years while in prison, has chosen to continue singing with the choir too, as a community member. “You’re nothing in prison, just another body being contained by the state. The choir gave me self-worth and a sense of accomplishment.” Shawn admits, “Before I joined the choir I was a ‘what can you do for me’ kind of person. Now, I think about what I can do for somebody else.”
Conducting Hope also tells the story of Essex S., an inmate in maximum security at Lansing. While Essex can’t sing in the choir due to his status, a rap song he composed is part of East Hill Singer repertoire. It’s called “I Wish I Never Hurt You,” and it’s a rap of redemption. Essex is serving a life sentence for first-degree felony murder, aggravated battery, possession of a firearm, and unlawful discharge of a firearm. It was a gang incident turned deadly; Essex says writing the song was the way for him to “take this unbearable weight off of how I felt about what I’d done.” It’s a powerful song about the real consequences of violence. In prison, there are no outlets for expressing emotion. “All the remorse, all the sorrow, everything that I was feeling, it all just came out at once.” In the film, the choir performs Essex’ song in concert.
The East Hill Singers concerts are held outside prison at a local church or auditorium. For most of the inmates, it is the only time they will leave the prison during their sentences. The audience, made up of local community members as well as friends and family, put aside any judgments for an hour. These men may have failed in school, at work, and in relationships, but here they are accepted for who they are, not where they’ve been. After the concert, they go through a receiving line to greet the audience, some of them close relations, and the men accept rarely heard accolades. Then, local volunteers serve them a home cooked meal.
Like many institutions these days, the Department of Corrections suffered cutbacks. For an entire year, there was no money for the buses or personnel to escort the inmates so they were forced to perform within the walls of the prison. Today, prison employees volunteer their time to transport the inmates in vans, and choir –nearly double in size– is once again performing before hundreds of people. The film culminates with such an event, reinforcing the purpose behind the East Hill Singers.
With 2.3 million people in America in prison, an all-time high, Conducting Hope raises important questions as to how to rehabilitate the prison population. Nearly two-thirds of inmates will be rearrested within three years and nearly fifty percent will wind up back in prison. Clearly, there are no easy solutions to this complex issue, but the East Hill Singers choir is attempting to change the way we view the prison population, breaking down stereotypes and providing a new model for changing the course of these inmates’ future lives. Studies show that arts programs do reduce the rate of recidivism. These men are going to be released at some point, so the question is: will they be better prepared thanks to the power of music?