Inmates break free with music
With a pick and some plucks, Wendy Fortner soared above her surroundings, figuratively speaking.
She no longer noticed the guards, the barbed wire fences or the khaki jumpsuit stamped with the words “state prisoner.” Instead, she closed her eyes, swayed back and forth, her fingers undulating as they teased the strings.
With just a guitar and song, the Lee Arrendale State Prison inmate transported herself from the Alto penitentiary and sailed to a state of sweet serenity.
“I don’t know where I go, but I think I go to a state of nirvana,” Fortner said. “It’s almost like I don’t know what’s going on around me.”
Across the room, a petite gray-haired woman known as “Chap” nods her head to the beat of Fortner’s rendition of “Redeemer,” her heart soaring at yet another testimony of how music elevates the spirit. She, too, seems oblivious to the fact that they are not in a music hall, but rather in a conference room next to a warden’s office. And if the Rev. Susan Bishop knows about Fortner’s crime — shooting her boyfriend and detaining him in a closet for three days, resulting in kidnapping charges — she shows no sign. Instead she chooses to praise the guitarist’s passion and dedication.
“We’re all so much more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” Bishop said. “That’s just one event, but I pay attention to the other things (the inmates) bring to the table.”
She does this specifically by inviting them to join her correctional choir, Voices of Hope. The 30-person choir operates on a conditional basis, as all members must audition to show skill and must be either considered minimum or medium security.
The purpose of the choir is twofold. First, and perhaps most obvious, is to create good music. Second, and perhaps more important, is to provide a sacred space for those seeking beauty despite their surroundings.
“I enjoy creating an oasis where people are invited not only to change, but (where they can) come with many gifts that were underdeveloped or neglected,” Bishop said. “I like creating an environment where their gifts can blossom.”
For example, Fortner worked in small-engine repair before the chaplain heard the woman had a past playing guitar.
“I never thought I’d play again,” Fortner said. “When I was introduced to Chap, I realized my hunger for hearing those strings ring, and she knew that. She knew what I needed. She made my dreams came true. It’s inexplainable, the bliss I enjoyed. I fell right back in where I left off, but for a greater purpose.”
Bishop — who has advanced degrees in divinity and music education — works hard to make sure the choir, which practices weekly and performs publicly twice a month, is more than just fun.
“This is not just an outing for them,” she said. “It’s their ministry. And they do know that. (They) can have a rewarding life and purpose here.”
While teaching music always seemed it would be a staple in the Bishop’s life, the chaplaincy career path creeped up on the Candler School of Theology alumna.
“I never said, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a prison chaplain,’” she said. “It didn’t work like that.”
Instead, in the 1970s, Bishop attended seminary and became an ordained Southern Baptist minister. At that time, she found few leadership roles for women in the church.
“The opportunities ... were few and far between,” she said.
Once she heard about the position with the prison system, however, she knew she had found her home. She started working with the Georgia Department of Corrections in 1984 and hasn’t looked back. She spent her first two years as a clinical chaplain, then was promoted to senior chaplain for the Metropolitan Correctional Institution in Atlanta. She worked there until 2011, when she moved to the women’s facility in Alto. In each position, she directed the choir.
“The choir is obviously one of the rewarding aspects of my job,” said Bishop, who also provides counseling to the inmates and the prison staff. “I have some incredibly talented women. We’ve become like family, and like any family, we just love each other to death ... Bottom line — we’re supportive of each other.”
Perhaps the best example of this is seen in inmate La’Sha Adams, the second soprano for the group, who is serving a life sentence for murder.
“When you’re incarcerated, it’s so easy to give up on yourself,” she said. “I’ve been incarcerated for 17 years. I was a juvenile. I was real angry. I’ve always had a confused relationship with the Lord. I didn’t know who to be. But then I found my place ... in the choir.”
Adams said before she found her home in singing, she had attempted suicide and had an estranged relationship from her family.
“Ever since (I discovered the choir), my life has turned around. It enriched my relationship (with my parents.) Now I have a way to make them proud. I feel like I owe them that,” she said. “My parents have been divorced for 30 years, but they come to all of my events together, and I’ve seen them hug at my events, and to witness that, just because of music, it’s magical.”
And it’s not just transforming for the choir. Audience members often find themselves leaving changed.
Bishop’s favorite story is about the man who wanted to be anywhere but at their concert.
“But his wife made him come,” she said.
The man had recently lost a loved one to murder, and he resented attending a show focused solely on inmates. But then the singing started.
“He said he reached a level of peace and forgiveness about his own situation that he wouldn’t have reached (without attending the concert),” Bishop said.