Prison chorus provides creative, social outlet for inmates

The James River Correctional Center has a new program for its inmates --- a chorus. The James River Correctional Center Chorus had eight members for its first concert on Aug. 31 at the correctional center's visitors center. The concert was limite...

The James River Correctional Center has a new program for its inmates --- a chorus.

The James River Correctional Center Chorus had eight members for its first concert on Aug. 31 at the correctional center's visitors center. The concert was limited to the correctional center's staff and the chorus members' families.

Corrections Officer Drew Topp, who started the chorus earlier this year, said the chorus performs a variety of music, from spirituals to country and rock.

Three inmates in the chorus, Justin Wright, Steven Carder and Ronnie Simons, said being in the chorus has made an impact in their lives behind bars.

Wright, 29, said he had a little bit of music background, as he was in band in middle and high school and was part of a professional drum corps after high school. He said he wound up in prison due to alcohol issues and being in the choir takes him back to a happier time.


"I don't have too many constructive opportunities here," he said, "This is a good way to take up some time."

Carder said he is always looking for new opportunities for social outlets in prison, and the choir fit that idea.

"I told Topp 'I've never sung a lick in my life, sign me up,'" he said.

Simons has a background in music, having sung with his church choir in Fargo. He said he learned how to read music through the choir program.

"It (learning to read music) gives me a better understanding of the music," he said. "It lets me contribute, rather than just stand there."

Carder and Wright said participating in the chorus has helped them be more self-confident and become more involved in the correctional center's activities and programs.

Simons said being part of the chorus will give him a new outlet and a new group of people to be around when he gets out of prison, which will help him not fall back into old, bad habits.

Topp is a Jamestown High School graduate and music major at the University of Jamestown. Topp has worked at the state prison since December 2014, other than a five-month break he took in fall 2015 to start college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks. He transferred to UJ after he qualified for academic and music scholarships.


"I've been playing music since I was 6 years old," he said.

Topp said he plays piano and six other instruments and sang in choir from elementary school through high school. He is working toward a double major in music education and vocal performance at UJ.

"I never thought my music and my working here would ever coincide," he said, "It's two work fields that don't intersect very often."

Topp said there was another corrections officer who talked about how the prison needed a choir and encouraged him to think about starting one.

"I brought the idea to Chad (Pringle, JRCC warden), and he liked the idea. That was in March," Topp said.

Pringle said he was excited about having a chorus program at JRCC.

"Any time we can get a prosocial activity going that inmates participate in, we do what we can to get that going," he said.

Topp posted a memo in all the housing units seeking inmates interested in starting a chorus and sent out a notice in the inmate's inhouse messaging system.


The initial chorus had 12 men and first met in April. Topp said the inmates had varying degrees of experience in singing and performing, and membership has fluctuated as inmates have left when paroled.

Topp said the inmates have worked hard to make the chorus a success.

"They (the inmates) have all made a lot of progress," he said. "They have all pretty much overcome the challenges I have given them."

Topp said the inmates really enjoy learning and are "like sponges" soaking up the music knowledge he presents to them.

"They have exceeded my expectations," he said.

Topp said another JHS graduate, Tom Mortensen, a senior studying music at the University of Mary in Bismarck, has earned credits toward his degree serving as Topp's assistant choir director. Topp said once he has his degree, he plans to go back into the military. Topp would liked to make an arrangement with UJ to have music students from the college direct the JRCC Chorus after he leaves.

Related Topics: JAMESTOWN
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