Singers in Arohata Women's Prison may join Kapiti Choir after release

Members of the Kapiti Gospel Choir accompanied by Corrections Department staff.

Members of the Kapiti Gospel Choir accompanied by Corrections Department staff.

A successful choir is welcoming gospel singers serving time in Arohata Women's Prison to join them after release.

Kapiti Gospel Choir leaders Shona McNeil and Liana Stupples volunteered their time to work with 12 prisoners selected from the Drug Treatment Unit, teaching them to sing gospel during six weekly lessons late last year.

The prisoners joined the rest of the choir to perform a community concert at the prison in Tawa in December, where they raised about $1425 for the Porirua Women's Refuge.

McNeil said the choir is now waiting to see if it will be possible to bring former prisoners into their group after they are let out into the community, depending on any release conditions.

"Long term, it would be nice for the girls on release to come and sing with the choir."

The prisoners, whose identities cannot be revealed, completed an anonymous evaluation after the show. Most said they were not confident going into it, but felt more so afterwards.

The weekly workshops had built-up their self esteem and made them feel more like ordinary members of the community.

The prisoners supported each other.  There was a feeling "if she can do it, then I can do it," McNeill said.

"The choir went in for one warm up practice session and got to know the girls so that we became one choir.

"We also matched our concert clothes to the colours the girls were wearing such as black, white and purple, so that we all looked similar."

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Most of the women had some singing ability - though they might not have previously known it - but needed to learn to put their talents to gospel tunes.

They learnt six songs using four-part harmonies including some action songs from the 1960s, two Christmas songs including Jingle Bells complete with bells, and one song with NZ Sign language.

It was easier to teach the women - most in their 20s - their roles in four-part harmonies by swapping words such as soprano or tenor for high and low.

"One had a fantastic voice and she actually did a slow version of a Whitney Houston song."

It was hoped the choir could join the prisoners for more performances next Christmas, maybe with a 12-week lead up instead of six.

About 20 of the choir members, most of whom were over 40, visited the prison and dispelled initial nerves.

Arts Access Aotearoa introduced the group to the prison. Co-ordinator Jacqui Moyes said the choir were very open to new members.

"Shona feels very passionate about access to the arts for everyone, and the benefits of being part of a community choir. Women are welcome to participate in the choir after they are released."

Arohata Corrections officer Sharon Woodhouse said the concerts took two months' of preparation, planning and rehearsals which involved staff, prisoners and guest performers from outside the wire.

"Most of the women did not realise they could sing and thoroughly enjoyed participating in this constructive activity which has given them the confidence to participate again, should the opportunity be offered to Arohata, in the near future.  

"The concert and rehearsals took place while observing prison security protocols. While it placed extra work on staff, it was worth the effort for the end result."

 - Stuff


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