Inside Cottage C at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey, a group of inmates are singing The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” in preparation for their upcoming concert.
The show comes at the end of weeks of preparation and music therapy sessions at the facility north of Flemington. Inmate Annette Harris said the chance to collaborate like this with other prisoners helps her deal with the reality of living behind bars.
“You don’t get a chance to express yourself when you are in prison. You are afraid to, you know,” said Harris. “There’s stigma attached. And when you’re in music, you let yourself go, you know, for a moment.”
The concert’s theme is “Starfish and Taffy.” The women sing a combination of well-known and original songs while acting out a script that takes them on a journey to the beach. The flagship song — “Starfish and Taffy” — is a twist on a song Prince once performed, said director Karen Melendez. The idea came about around the time Prince passed away earlier this year.
“A lot of the women love [Prince’s] music so we found a song that he had a done on ‘The Muppet Show’ called ‘Starfish and Coffee,’ and one of the inmates helped us to rewrite the words to become ‘Starfish and Taffy,'” said Melendez.
Melendez, a music therapist, has run the program with Rutgers University’s Correctional Health Care program since 2005. They’ve put on more than 20 concerts like this one, incorporating poetry, spoken word, music and theater along the way.
She said the program gives the inmates something that’s been missing from many of their lives.
“A lot of them didn’t have positive life experiences like being in the choir or doing extracurricular activities so here, sometimes they are getting attention for success like they never have before,” she explained.
Since its launch, it’s become a model for programs at prisons for women throughout the country. In addition to music therapy, the inmates practice yoga, write songs and work on scripts. Melendez said it helps inmates deal with one of the biggest issues they face in prison.
“Often to survive here, you have a lot of walls, you have a lot of emotional walls. Like masks, like layers. The music kind of helps to open you up again,” said Melendez.
And that’s something Harris hopes she will carry with her once she leaves Edna Mahan.
“This has a made a difference in me. Of course I won’t be able to know until I get outside, but right now, it feels good. And if I can just feel good for a few minutes, then just let me be, you know what I’m saying?”