The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Oakdale Community Choir, “hope in the face of justice”

The Oakdale Community Choir rehearses at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center on Tuesday, March, 20, 2018. The choir consists of both inmates and outside volunteers. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)

“Big inhale, big exhale — let go of anything not related to tonight’s practice.”

Mary Cohen, the director of Oakdale Community Choir and associate professor of music at the University of Iowa, sits on a mobile set of stairs in front of a U-shaped sea of blue and chrome-colored chairs. The choir is composed of inmates from the Iowa Medical & Classification Center and volunteers from the community.

Since the choir’s inception in 2009, dozens of “Inside Singers” (inmates) and “Outside Singers” (volunteers) have filled the Oakdale prison with songs both new and old. As the choir’s April 28 concert grows near, The Daily Iowan listened in on a rehearsal.

Cohen said in a 2014 interview with Chorus America that the Oakdale choir is one of at least nine nonreligious prison choirs led by certified music directors in the U.S.

Josh Lusch, an inmate who has been a member of the choir since 2010, said his experience with the group has been “life changing.”

“I tried the church choir at first, but it wasn’t really my thing,” Lusch said. “Before [the choir], you only had the opportunity to hang out in the yard, gym, or library. It’s really opened a lot of doors for me, and when people come in from the community, it was amazing that they treated us like people.”

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Lusch said incarcerated individuals are often treated like and looked at like “third-rate citizens,” and the sense of community that comes from the choir is heartwarming. Joel Conrad, another inmate who has been a part of the choir for more than five years, echoed Lusch’s statements.

Conrad said for one concert, people from six countries studying art as a tool for social justice came to the Oakdale facility.

“There was a man from Vietnam who brought in flutes his father had made,” Conrad said. “Sometimes, there’s a resistance to join a choir as a man in the U.S. … you have guys that come in here with that ‘tough guy’ attitude, but that fades pretty fast.”

The pain felt while incarcerated isn’t limited to a cell — six-year choir member Phillip Yeoman has seen this firsthand.

“I lost a son a few years back, and then I lost my dad,” Yeoman said. “There was another guy who had lost a daughter, and he really helped me through that.”

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About the Contributor
Charles Peckman
Charles Peckman, Senior Reporter
Email: [email protected] Twitter: @charlespeckman Charles currently serves as a digital producer, senior reporter, and host of On the Record at The Daily Iowan. As a four-year staff member, he has covered the 2016 Presidential election and Iowa caucuses in addition to continued reporting on sustainability and local business. Working towards a bachelor's in journalism and mass communication, certificate in entrepreneurial management, and minor in German, Charles holds a wide variety of interests. When he is not in the newsroom, you can find him watching Mad Men or fixing vintage wristwatches.