From juvenile detention, redemption songs

From juvenile detention, redemption songs

March 7, 2016

There is a concert series in New York City that is beginning to attract attention and funding from city officials. These concerts have featured Carnegie Hall-selected musicians, professional sound crews and an internationally renowned gospel choirmaster – it’s their venue that is unique. The concerts feature a choir composed of juvenile delinquents and are often held in secure juvenile detention facilities.

While nonprofit music programs have long flourished in jails and juvenile halls across the country, New York City put its own money into these programs for the first time this school year through a larger $2 million Schools Out New York City grant from the Department of Youth and Community Development. Arts programs in the detention facilities were awarded $360,000 for a suite of offerings that include mindfulness programs, writing workshops, drama classes and music.

The hope is that city investment in these programs will grow, spurred by the idea that their benefits go far beyond simple extracurricular activities. In a recent study, Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, a Harvard-trained researcher, analyzed the impact of a Carnegie Hall project conducted by Pastor Chantel Renee Wright, director of the Harlem-based youth choral group Songs of Solomon in New York City.

The study, funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, found that incidents of “acting out behaviors” were reduced among youths that participated. There were no fights or altercations during the intensive three-week preparations. Moreover, she explained, those who participated did not drop out.

“That may not sound like a lot. But it really is. They can pull out at any time,” Wolf said. “There are likely to be other people in the ensemble with whom they have a beef of some kind … It is a world in which they have to put that aside. That they come, that they behave, that there is no fighting, is pretty impressive.”

“The arts programs I think have made a huge difference,” said Bradley Pierre, director of programs inside the Horizon Juvenile Center in the Bronx, one of the city’s two secure detention facilities for middle- and high-school-aged youths. “For some of those kids, it’s a transformative experience. They are totally different in that setting when they are expressing themselves through music.”

The SONYC grant covers some of the cost of these programs and has allowed Carnegie Hall to extend its programs through the end of the school year. Nevertheless, they could use more funding.

Just over 2,700 youths were admitted to juvenile detention in 2015. But due to the high turnover rate as children are moved into longer-term incarceration facilities or out of the system, at any given time there are just under 100 youths in the city's two secure detention facilities: Crossroads Juvenile Center in Brooklyn and Horizon. Carnegie Hall and other providers currently conduct their programming on-site at the detention facility after daily classes; youth remain in the facility throughout the day. The city grant covers 30 slots at each facility at $6,000 each. Providers call the city's new contribution significant, but admit it does not cover the true cost of the work.

“I think we still need more,” Pierre said. “We have funding now for after-school programs, but I still think there are opportunities to do more with these kids.”

What good does it do?

Proponents say that the programs help break down emotional barriers for troubled young people and allow them to develop their untapped potential and even recognize that potential in others.

“Given the opportunity, you can see people in a much more complex way. Not just black, not just Latina, not just from Queens,” Wolf said of the participants. “So they understand that person X has whatever gang or neighborhood affiliation, but he is also a very gifted musician. Or she is really an incredible vocalist. Or she started this program and wouldn’t even open her mouth and now look at what she did tonight.”

The effort to focus on juvenile detention as a vehicle for youth development is picking up momentum. This January, the New York City Council held a hearing to provide a space for providers to share early results and advocate for more funds. Still, more work must be done to both promote the link between arts programming and juvenile justice reform and quantify its impact.

“If you said, ‘How do you want to stop recidivism or change the percentage?’ I’m not sure you would say, ‘Let's start a bunch of arts programs,’” quipped Ann Gregg, director of community programs for Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute. “It’s not the first place policymakers go to.” While arts programs aren’t a magic bullet, Gregg said, they can be an integral part of that larger solution.

Youths in juvenile hall "are at a crossroads for real potential change in their lives or real potential to be a statistic,” said Gregg. “And so, how can a musical experience help them change the course that they are on? And change perceptions to themselves, to their families, to staff, and to the world at large about who they are, what their story is, and what they're capable of being?”

Wright, whose youth choral group Songs of Solomon has sung with pop stars like Elton John at Radio City Music Hall, ran Carnegie Hall-funded workshops in the city's detention centers in 2012 and 2013. The group included her choir members and youths in detention. After three weeks of intense rehearsals they presented a full concert for their families.

For Wright, the change starts with choosing songs that share the universal message that everyone has the potential to be redeemed. After all, the young people in her choir aren't all that different from the juvenile hall participants, Wright said.

“I tried to pick music that would inspire them to unlock those hidden places that the system makes them shut down,” Wright said explaining her song choices for the juvenile choir.

While not all the music Wright employed was strictly gospel – R. Kelly’s “The World's Greatest” and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten” have also made the cut – others, like “This Little Light of Mine,” are gospel classics.

“Everybody has to know that no matter what you do, you can be forgiven and you can start all over,” she said.

From a social science perspective, that's significant to the positive impact of these programs, Wolf said. “The music comes, by and large, from a church tradition that many of the kids came up in,” Wolf explained. “And that gospel tradition is essentially about sinning and redemption.”

Wolf hopes that significance will come to be fully appreciated, and measured.

Politicians and government officials have shifted strongly toward “evidence-based practice,” Wolf said. “What people want you to show is that it changes the recidivism rate. I can't show that with this kind of program,” Wolf said.

“The city – if it really cared about these issues – could set up a study. It has the capacity to do that,” Wolf said, explaining that only the city could create a database that tracks the progress of individuals after juvenile detention. The goal would be to find out what can be done to help save them from future incarceration.

Meanwhile, Dr. Wolf’s research is already informing future programs at Carnegie Hall, and advocates point to personal experiences as examples of the change that can be made.

“A lot of the people I grew up with … a good amount of them are currently locked up,” said Orson Benjamin, who sings in Songs of Solomon. He credits being part of Pastor Wright's choir with helping him avoid that same fate.

“And so,” Benjamin added,“I always say, ‘Music – it saved my life.’”

Two performances from the final concert of a choral project led by Chantel Wright and Songs of Solomon at Horizon Juvenile Center:

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.