Holly Mulcahy, left, and Mary Corbett perform in front of 128 Walker State Prison's Faith and Character Based inmates.

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Captive Audience

Holly Mulcahy stands with her violin, her back to the wall of the gym at Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Georgia. Next to her is Mary Corbett with her violin. Between them and 128 inmates serving time for a host of crimes big and small are a microphone stand and about 5 feet of open gym floor.

A lone female officer sits off to the side. The men are seated in chairs fanned out in a semicircle facing the stage, quiet and staring at the two women, who are smiling and relaxed.

The place is so quiet, Corbett steps to the microphone and says with a laugh, "Talk amongst yourselves. We have to tune up."

It's a relatively simple moment, but it sets the tone for how the rest of the evening will go.

A new kind of prison

Walker State Prison, home to about 400 inmates, is unique among Georgia prisons. In 2011, the facility became the testing ground for the Georgia Department of Corrections' new Faith and Character Based program, which focuses on accountability, responsibility, integrity and faith.

Inmates in the Faith and Character Based curriculum have all requested to be there and have gone through a vetting process before being allowed to participate in the two-year program. Not everyone is part of the curriculum. Others are there to learn a vocation such as welding and will remain there as long as that program takes.

"Half of the men there are lifers, but to be there, they must be eligible for parole," says Alan Bonderud. He's been volunteering there since 2010 and was involved in mentoring new mentors when the prison added the Faith and Character Based program.

"Every crime you can imagine is represented in the prison population there," he says.

The goal is to give the men skills that will help them increase their chances of reacclimating into society upon release and to reduce the chances of the men ever returning to prison.

Education is a key component as the men take a variety of classes — a few have earned Master of Divinity degrees, for example — but so is character development.

Mulcahy first visited Walker State about three years ago after a chance meeting with Bonderud at a Chattanooga Symphony & Opera-sponsored gala. When Mulcahy, the CSO concertmaster, learned that Bonderud mentored at Walker State, she expressed an interest in performing there.

"I didn't want to just go there and perform," she says. "I wanted to do more."

Bonderud says the recitals "have been very effective. They continue to increase the numbers of men who attend, and reports from the men are that they now share their programs with family members, and it gives them something new to talk about. It encourages them with their families. Some even have had family members take up the violin."

No wrong answers

Except for the men in their prison uniforms, this Sunday night performance looks like any other recital, but without the punch and mixed nuts. In fact, the gym that serves as the recital hall looks like any other gym, except there are no bleachers. Those were removed after some inmates tried to use them to go over the razor wire that is so prevalent around the grounds.

You notice it as you drive up, but especially as you go through the checkpoints to get in.

Most of that is forgotten once you enter the gym and are warmly greeted by inmates who introduce themselves with hellos and handshakes.

The program begins with "How Majestic the Expanse" by Shawna Wolf, then Mulcahy opens the floor for discussion. Two inmates move around the room delivering handheld microphones to prisoners who have raised their hands to speak.

No one speaks except for the inmate with the microphone.

"I pictured it reminded me of icicles," he begins. "I could hear the sound of light coming through the trees and birds chirping. I heard the pulse in the music."

More hands go up, and three or four other men share their thoughts on what they heard or felt listening to the piece. Around the room, the rest of the audience listens quietly while a few nod in agreement at what they hear. For her part, Mulcahy doesn't try to lead, correct, judge or in any way influence the discussion, except to encourage the men to say what they think.

"There are no wrong answers," she says at one point.

This is the key to the whole recital, she says later, and it's the reason she believes the audiences have gotten larger each of the five times she has returned to perform at Walker State over the last three years. Twenty-five preapproved men attended the first. Now, anyone who wants to sign up to attend is allowed.

Mulcahy is there to perform, and to listen, not tell the men what to think.

"We get enough of that here," says inmate Scott Reed before the performance.

His comment draws a quick chuckle from the three other prisoners approved to talk to the media, but it serves as a reminder of the realities of where we are.

Common ground

Mulcahy is a champion for living composers, in part because she feels they are underappreciated but also because they can participate programs such as this. She also believes firmly that patrons of "high" arts, such as symphonic music, and visual arts, such as sculpture or painting, should be encouraged to formulate their own opinions about what they see or hear.

She'd rather the listener tell her what they hear in a piece she plays than the other way around.

"I think that is one of the most horrible things about my industry — somebody telling me how I should react," she says. "I think that is a very selfish thing to do."

Those were her thoughts as she first visited the prison, and they helped formulate the programs she presents. Even she couldn't have predicted the doors, and minds, it would open, however.

Reed says he did not attend the early recitals, but he couldn't help but be surprised at what he heard in the dormitories (the men live in bunk beds in large open rooms rather than cells) after the performances.

"I heard grown men talking about their feelings and their emotions that they felt hearing the music," he says.

"These are pretty hard guys from the streets."

Says inmate Garrett Anderson, "I've never heard this kind of music before. Never. And I never thought about how something made me feel. I never talked about it."

Reed says it is not at all unusual now for the men to talk about the music for days and weeks following a performance. It's those conversations that help explain the increase in audience participation, he says.

Inmate Gordon Kelly Briggs says he used to listen to classical music while driving a truck for a living.

"It helps me relax and sleep," he says. "It's very peaceful, and I can't imagine not listening to it."

During one of the earlier recitals, Mulcahy says, one of the inmates said the piece she had just played reminded him of being arrested in a Red Lobster. She was at first taken aback by the comment, but realized the work had a good bit of tension, followed by resolve, and that was what he was thinking about upon hearing it.

Widening the circle

Also in the crowd tonight are 23 guests, including Christine Bespalec-Davis from the Hunter Museum of American Art and composers Dr. Anne Guzzo and Dr. Rob Deemer, both premiering pieces they have written specifically for the evening. Guzzo, in fact, created an unfinished and untitled piece based on a painting and poem an inmate gave to Mulcahy during her last recital.

Mulcahy commissioned Guzzo to create the piece. As part of the program, Guzzo is here to ask the inmates to help her complete and name the piece. Several inmates say they heard a discussion, or argument, between two people in the early part of the piece, which then led to a more harmonious dialogue.

Guzzo takes notes, and each member of the audience has a questionnaire with an opportunity to write down his thoughts. Guzzo takes those for reference and plans to return with the finished piece at a later date.

After hearing Deemer's piece, one inmate admits that he doesn't see much hope in the world based on his own life experiences, but that the piece seems to advocate for looking for good things to happen rather than dwelling on the past.

Deemer seems awed to hear his piece so rightly interpreted.

"Spot-on," he says.

"It is important to remember the past, but also to think about what good things could happen, and to be open to them."

Bespalec-Davis is here to briefly talk about "Phenomena Royal Violet Visitation," a popular painting at the Hunter that measures 4.5 x 14 feet. Following Mulcahy's lead, she asks the men what they see. One man says the painting brings to mind a rainbow, but upside down, as if going back into the earth, and that the rainbow symbolizes God's promise to never again flood the earth.

"It looks like God changed his mind," the inmate says of his interpretation of the piece.

Corbett, Guzzo and Deemer are longtime colleagues of Mulcahy. They are people she respects, people she trusts to share her desire to present these recitals as a benefit for the inmates and not for personal gain.

That's not to say that they don't benefit from them, however. Corbett tells the audience coming to Walker is one of her favorite things to do, and both Guzzo and Deemer admit that it is rare for composers to get the kind of honest and immediate feedback they are hearing.

"I'm awed by this," Deemer says.

Mulcahy says she wants to work with composers who understand what the program is about and who want to be a part of something that benefits others.

"That's what I look for are composers who are open to 'Let's where it goes' and open to not controlling the outcome."

Because of the success of the recitals to date, Mulcahy has created Arts Capacity, a nonprofit with a board of six people. She created it to help quantify the benefit of the program and to help spread it to other prisons.

"We are finding very good early success with what we are doing, and we are looking to expand that," Mulcahy says.

Bonderud says 25 of the 128 men at the recent recital will be transferring to a prison near Atlanta, where they will serve as seed mentors for creating a similar program there.

"This will spread, but it will take time," Bonderud says.

Which, of course, is measured differently depending on which side of the razor wire you find yourself.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfree or 423-757-6354.