Songs of prisoners sound freely in exhibit at Eastern State Penitentiary [photos]

Artist Jess Perlitz went to prisons across the country, asking inmates for the one song they want to be heard on the outside.

She recorded 85 songs sung by prisoners — some accompanied by guitar, piano or finger pops; some were sung as a choir; some were sung while standing alone in an empty prison cafeteria.

“The mic in the room was the most important thing,” said Perlitz. “It was all about me setting up this microphone between us.”

She installed a selection of those recordings inside cell 52, cellblock 8 of the dilapidated Eastern State Penitentiary, now a museum,  in Philadelphia, as part of the historic site’s annual art commissions.

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Other new installations are a display of flaking gold leaf matching the flaking paint in another cell by Ruth Scott Blackson; portraits by Eric Okdeh of people impacted by mass incarceration; images of prison with the worst human rights accusations hand-painted onto porcelain dinner plates by Emily Waters; and a re-creation of a mural painted on prison sheets by Jesse Krimes while he was serving time in federal prison, secreted out of prison in 39 pieces.

For her “Chorus,” Perlitz set up a motion sensor at the door of cell 52, triggering one of the 12 selected songs in the installation. Every 20 seconds, another randomly chosen song layers on top of it, until the sound is a cacophony of voices.

Every time another visitor enters the room, the din immediately stops and restarts with a single song. Perlitz wanted it to be a contrast of silence and community inside a prison.

“My first vision was people singing a capella, and I would layer them. Then I realized when you do that, it’s hard to hear the songs,” said Perlitz. “I’m going in to do a service for these people, and I want to honor that. I have to let it get heard. “

All 85 songs can be heard individually on the prison’s audio tour guide.

Most of the songs are spirituals; many are popular songs, which the inmate felt he or she could pull off pretty well (including an a capella version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”). Some prisoners wrote their own songs.

Inside cell 52, as the songs play themselves out, one invariably comes into the clear because it’s the longest. At 6 minutes and 30 seconds, “Dear Younger Me” always plays out the cycle. The music for chorus and piano was written by an elderly inmate of a medium-security prison in Iowa.

“You can hear in his voice – it feels there’s a lot at stake,” said Perlitz. “He had been in the infirmary and was quite sick. They brought him in to sing that song. He sang, and clearly was not doing well, and left immediately afterwards. There was a real urgency to have that song heard, on his part.”

“Chorus,” along with all the art installations, will be on view at at the former prison for several months.

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