Inside Prison: Inmates & Volunteers Create Musical Performance

Published: Dec. 10, 2015 at 10:35 PM CST
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A group that started back in 2009 is still going strong.

They call themselves the Oakdale Community Choir. The group is made up of about 60 people, and it meets every Tuesday to practice.

Friends and family came together to watch the final concert of the season Thursday night.

Joel Conard and Steve Dunham shook off their last-minute nerves.

"I am usually calm and cool until I'm right on the spot,” Conard said.

"I try and be in the moment,” said Dunham.

Each singer had their part.

Conard was what's called an inside singer, while Dunham was an outside singer. The big difference is that outside singers get to leave after the concert, inside singers have to stay.

"We don't call ourselves inmates or anything. It's inside singers and outside singers,” Conard said.

The men in green shirts are serving time at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Coralville. Those in purple shirts are community members volunteering their time.

"When we first started about six years ago, there was a lot of tension. Both the inside singers and outside singers were very nervous,” Dunham said.

Now, they're more comfortable as they sing holiday songs and songs written by inmates.

"Each one is powerful in its own way,” Dunham said.

Inside singers wrote lyrics such as:

“Some may think to toss these men,

What good is to be found?

Show them love and care then

With hope now hear the sound

We are grateful, yes we are

For those op’ning a door,

Offer hope to reach a star

Then help them to be more.

Music isn't the only powerful part of this group, it's the connections they make.

"This gives me a connection with people that I wouldn't otherwise have in here. It gets me involved in something community oriented, which I wouldn’t normally have in here. It helps build a connection before I leave,” Conard said.

The group meets every Tuesday to practice in preparation for the concert.

"Quite often these are the best two hours of my week, more often than not. It’s very rewarding. These guys say it helps them, but I think the outside singers get more out of it,” Dunham said.

A group of insiders and outsiders that are learning from one another and putting on a good show.

"We wear different colored shirts, but I think we have an understanding that we are all human beings and we've all made mistakes," Conard said.

The woman who started the group, Mary Cohen, is an Associate Professor at the University of Iowa who was researching music-making in prison. She said the goal is for participants to learn from each other and to empower inmates to gain skills for successfully re-entering society.

The choir, which is a partnership between the University of Iowa and the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, is always looking for new volunteers. For more information you can contact Cohen at