As a prison choir director, one UMN student uses music for rehabilitation

Amanda Weber began conducting Voices of Hope in 2015

Cindy Simba

Amanda Weber believes music is an integral part of rehabilitating incarcerated women.

After studying prison choirs for her master’s degree, Weber, a University of Minnesota music doctoral student, had an opportunity to conduct a women’s prison choir in Minnesota.

Voices of Hope is part of the Shakopee Minnesota Correctional Facility’s education program. Headed by University alumni Jim Verhoye, the program ensures that prisoners are provided educational opportunities while serving their sentences.

The women at the prison perform for each other during a ceremony when they graduate from the program.

The choir serves a greater purpose than bringing individuals together. It’s also therapeutic.

“A lot of these women are coming from paths of trauma to the prison. A majority of the women have gone through some sort of abuse,” Weber said.

More than 86 percent of women who are in prison have experienced sexual abuse before being detained, according to a Vera Institute study.

At the prison, the women often talk about restorative justice, which looks at modes of healing instead of punishment.

“The first person that needs healing is the victim, then the person who committed the crime and then the community,” Weber said.

Music has also provided self-improvement opportunities, and it’s a way for the women to add positivity to their lives.

“They absolutely love the choir. They talk about their improved outlook on life, self-esteem,” Verhoye said. “They feel like they’re giving back. They feel a connection to the community.”

For some of the women, the choir is an outlet to address certain fears, too.

“A lot of them are terrified of being in front of people. They’re actively trying to conquer fears. They’re actively trying to become a better person and to live into a new identity,” Weber said.

The choir collaborates with the University of Minnesota’s music department, and several choirs from the University have gone into the prison to perform with Voices of Hope. At the end of their performance, some of the women have paired up as pen-pals.

Voices of Hope began in 2015, and participants practice during 12 week periods for the prison’s academic schedule. In fall of 2015, 15 women signed up for the first quarter. This past week, 57 women signed up.

Since 1980, the number of women in prison has increased by more than 700 percent. At least 95 percent of women in prison are expected to be released at some point, according to the Council of State Government’s Justice Center.

It is important that educational and rehabilitation opportunities are provided for them while they’re behind bars, Weber said.

“If we don’t focus on rehabilitation, how are we ever going to break the cycle unless we care about one another?” Weber said.