ADAM: Robbery. Narcotics. Assault. And Murder. These are the rap sheets from America’s best musicians you’ve never heard. Why? These men and women are serving life sentences in some of the country’s most secure prisons. Welcome to Sounds From the Slammer, a new music podcast from journalists Adam Schrader and Angus Mordant. Each episode features original compositions and cover tunes from these inmates. The artists behind bars will also discuss their crimes and how the opportunity to pursue music changed their lives. This episode we’re visiting Montana Women’s Prison. My name is Adam Schrader and I’m your host for this episode.
ANGUS: The state-run Montana Women’s Prison, located in Billings, is a 194-bed facility that operates constantly at or over capacity, according to its website. The facility has a staff of about 92, including 20 contract personnel. More than 90 percent of inmates partake in educational or vocational programs. Once such program is Tutti Behind Walls, a two-year-old partnership with the Billings Symphony in which inmates learn and perform the guitar. My name is Angus Mordant and I had the chance to speak with the inmates and officials with the symphony about the program.
ADAM: You just heard Greensleeves performed by the women of Montana Women’s Prison. The song, composed sometime in the 16th century, was already popular by the time Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor. In his play, the character Mistress Ford refers twice to “the tune of 'Greensleeves.’”
CANDY: My name is Candy Holzer.
ADAM: Candy has served as the education director for the Billings Symphony Orchestra and Chorale for 11 years. She said she’s driven past the Montana Women’s Prison many, many mornings since she began in her position.
CANDY: I always wanted to serve the women here in some capacity with music in their lives—ever since I’ve been working at the Billings Symphony. And I worked on it and worked on it and I didn’t really get what I wanted with the executive director I worked under at that time.
ADAM: The Billings Symphony underwent a change in executive directors. Candy decided to approach the new leadership with the hopes for her new project. She said the new executive director was excited by the idea.
CANDY: He goes, “Well, if you can write a grant and get some money,” he said, “Let’s see what we can do.” So I did just that. I wrote a grant just to get some general money to come into the prison—just to kind of see what it was like in here first. And I sent musicians in just to do little mini concerts and gave the women biographies of the composers. And that was the first year. And then I wrote a grant to the State of Montana for the Artists in the Schools program. And this is not really a school. But in a way it is because the women are always learning new things in here. And so, the state was super excited about it. They gave me just a little bit of money, enough to purchase some guitars and stands. And we made copies illegally of music so we at least some kind of music because the program was very poor when we began.
ADAM: Candy said the state was so impressed with the success of the program that officials told her to ask for more money the next year.
CANDY: We asked for more money, so the guitar program went on for the second year. And then again, this past year, they said ask for more money again—which I did. And so next year, not only will we have 30 weeks of guitar lessons, we’re also going to have instrument petting zoos where the women can try out all the instruments of the orchestra and have concerts. And then the last time, all the women will get to have a concert with our musicians.
ANGUS: Can you describe the concert with the musicians a little bit? Is that going to be at the facility? Is that going to be open to friends and family?
CANDY: It’s very hard to get into the prison, so what the ladies get to do is invite two inmates each to come to these different events that we have. However, for the concerts, the prison coordinator will usually round up about 30 women that are interested in coming. And the concerts will be with two or three of our musicians. They’ll give a concert. They’ll talk about their instruments. Then were going to have a music store come in to and bring in instruments so the women can try them out.
FAITH: My name is Faith Krill and I’m native American and German. I’ve been in here almost 10 years. I get a kick out of doing this guitar because I’ve never had any musical background before. And when I get out I’d like to casually grab a guitar without letting my family know and just start playing! And I’m hoping that we’ll get other instruments coming in besides the guitar. Learning to play something with your fingers and learning to see the notes, I think it’s so great to be able to do that and take it out there and maybe show your family, “Look what I learned what I was in there.” Maybe do it at family reunions one day.
CANDY: The women come and go. Of course, sometimes they get released to the prerelease center. Sometimes they get released out. Sometimes they drop out of the program for other reasons. We’re starting new women all the time. So it’s kind of hard to continue with harder and harder music because we kind of integrate the women in and out. But we try to hone the music so everybody can be involved. Maybe one can play the chords. Maybe one can play arpeggios. Then other one can sing. So we try to do all different levels.
ADAM: Guitar teachers offer classes in ten-week sessions, three times a year. Eighty-five women applied for the classes when it began. But inmates must undergo a rigorous approval process before joining due to space limitations.
CANDY: They’re very excited and honored to have been chosen because we would only choose ten of them to initially start. They come in the class nervous. They come in the class very excited. And after they get used to us, by about the fourth class, they become our friends. I mean we’re always excited to see them. They’re excited to see us every week.
JENNIFER: My name is Jennifer Domer and I’ve been here at this facility for almost two years. I’m 45 years old and I’m from Butte, Montana.
CANDY: Then when we do a recital, it’s a different story. They get very nervous. And it’s just funny, they come in and they’re so nervous and yet they’re excited. They want to do it but they don’t want to do it. They come in with their hair all fixed up and their fingernails polished and they’re really, really excited.
JENNIFER: I’d say the moments that stand out for me mostly are during the recitals. Little nervous but it’s been fun to get my friends down who want to listen and I’m kind of excited to go home and play some for my kids.
ANGUS: Would you sort of like opportunities for people outside of the facility to get to hear your music more often?
JENNIFER: I don’t think that I would get out and play music on a regular basis for like a crowd. But like, for around the house or for my family or something, I can do that. And it’s just been a really nice experience. Like I said, I didn’t think it was something that I’d ever do.
ANGUS: A lot of people have sort of whatever their preconceived ideas are on incarceration and they don’t realize there are these sorts of programs. Is there anything you’d like to say to people that have these preconceived ideas?
JENNIFER: People definitely get a preconceived notion about things that go on in of a prison. I believe that people, even myself, you know, when you think of somebody in prison, you think that it’s all negative and they need to do their time and, you know, be punished. But that isn’t necessarily what they’re… I mean they’re doing that, yes but a lot of positive things come up from it too. And it makes the time that we spend here a lot better. There just isn’t negatives to this situation and I think you learn to be positive, you learn to follow through, you learn just a lot of different things and overall the experience is just way more positive than it is negative.
ADAM: Right now, the classes are on a summer break until they resume in the fall.
JENNIFER: It’s definitely sad that we can’t get together for a couple months but time goes by fast. But the good thing is we can still practice, go on our own and practice. And I practice if I can unless there’s a lockdown or something which interferes but I go about five hours week on top of our two-hour class that we have. So, during the summer I’ve still been doing my five hours of practice.
CANDY: It gives them something to do rather than maybe just sit in their room. They can actually go play their guitar. They can’t take their guitar into their room with them because they do have a roommate. Each of the women do. But it gives them something do with their spare time. Plus, it’s a skill they can take with them. You can always find a guitar at a pawn shop or somebody in their family has a guitar and they can continue with that skill. A couple of the ladies in the class have gone onto the prerelease center. They requested to take their guitars with them. We were thrilled to let that happen just because we want them to continue playing this guitar so that hopefully then can self soothe themselves when they do get out and get into the real world instead of going back to their same routine they did before whether it was drugs or whatever they’ve been doing in their life.
ADAM: "Simple Gifts," a Shaker song written in 1848, was largely unknown outside Shaker communities until Aaron Copland used its melody for the score of the ballet Appalachian Spring, which was first performed in 1944. English songwriter Sydney Carter used the tune for his song, "Lord of the Dance," which was first published in 1963.
ELIZABETH: My name is Elizabeth Adcock and I am one of the guitar instructors here at the Montana Women’s Prison.
ADAM: Elizabeth is not a member of the symphony but plays with many of the symphony members.
ANGUS: What have you noticed over the two years, changes in the women or in the program or in yourself?
ELIZABETH: Well I’ve noticed the changes in the program are very positive changes. I was a little skeptical about coming into the prison. And mainly, I wasn’t sure if we could actually do it—if we would have any sort of impact. If we could actually teach them music. A lot of teachers would admit that they’re not always successful and students, for the most part, are not interested in the work. But it’s a very interesting group of women. They’re cooperative. They work well with each other. Some of them have more skill going into this than others and they’re very supportive of the ones who don’t. Some of the ladies are older and it’s pretty hard to pick up an instrument when you’re older and have it work.
DIANA: I’m Diana Arnold. I’m 63. I was born and raised in Bozeman, Montana, and I’ve been here at MWP for about three and a half years. I was in the very first class they offered here. The instructors are having us play a lot of music from the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is right in my era.
ANGUS: What’s been the biggest challenge?
DIANA: Well, first of all, as you get older, it’s harder to learn new things. The second thing is I have a head injury form a vehicle accident which makes it hard to sometimes be coordinated. So, for me, it’s really pushing me to make those new connections and break that kind of that I can’t do it. So, I keep doing it. I’m persistent. I mean there’s whole different levels of people because some people played before they came into the class. Some people have good voices for singing. So, I just keep trying to keep up. It’s a struggle for me but it’s one I enjoy.
ANGUS: What was your initial reaction when you were told that these people from the symphony would be coming here?
DIANA: I knew it would be a popular thing so I felt very lucky to be chosen one of the first original ten people to start but I’ve stuck with it since it started.
ADAM: Diana said the only thing that bothers her about the program is the people who leave it.
DIANA: The people that leave that just leave, I think they get tired of it, is frustrating because it is a commitment. There’s a lot of other people that would have liked to have their space. So that’s the only negative the people that leave and are still hanging out. That’s frustrating for me because there’s so many people that want to be in this program.
ANGUS: Can you explain the practice schedule? How long each week you get?
DIANA: I signed up for four practices a week and I practice in the late afternoon usually from 3 to 4: Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. So, I break it up. Some days, you know, it’s like you know any other art—you feel like you can go forever. And some days you feel like that hour is a chore.
ANGUS: Is there anything you want to say about the comradery of the group or how it is coming together to perform?
DIANA: Well the instructors are great. Candy arranges for us and she plays with us — which is a really nice thing to have. Of course, any activity you are in, you have a group. Everybody tries to work together and everybody makes mistakes. So, it’s nice to know that you’re not the only one in there making mistakes and they’re always willing to help you.
ANGUS: Do you know anyone’s background or do you just take it on face value of the course? Does that come up? Does that matter to you personally?
ELIZABETH: We don’t really think about what they’re here for. And I know it’s possible to find out what they are here for, you can just search and it’s all public knowledge but I’m not really interested. I think that would not help, because the reason we’re here to help them learn guitar. But with that said, we do find out why they’re here and it’s sometimes kind of gruesome. But we are in a prison.
CANDY: When I first entered the prison, I did not want to have any idea of what the women had done to get them in here. Of course, some of them after I got to know them and know their names I recognized some of them from the paper and knew what their crimes were but I had no prior knowledge before I came in because it does not matter what they did. They’re in here for a reason I know that everybody knows that this is their punishment but when we’re here playing together it doesn’t matter.
ELIZABETH: It’s a little intimidating at first but it’s pretty secure here. This room is secure on all sides.
ADAM: You just heard a spontaneous performance of Amazing Grace by Lindsay Haugen at the end of her interview.
LINDSAY: Hi, my name is Lindsay Haugen. I am from Portland, Oregon. I’ve been living in Tacoma Washington for about the last ten years. I’ve been in this music program here since February of this year so right around six months or so maybe not even that.
ADAM: Lindsay has been involved in the prison’s choir program since arriving last July. She’s serving a 60-year sentence currently and is not eligible to see the parole board for another 13 years. Last year, Haugen was convicted of murdering her 25-year-old boyfriend in 2015, according to MTN News. She was 32 at the time.
LINDSAY: So the music program here has been a gift because my victim, I am a homicide, you know I was convicted of homicide last year, his mom the mother of my victim came out here from Florida to visit me. It was the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had. But I was actually able to sit down and sing with her and play the guitar. Her sons both play, err you know one son did play the guitar and her other son does play the guitar and so we were able to have that connection and it was really, really beautiful. And I keep getting letters from her saying ohh there’s this song I want to sing with you and there’s that song I want to sing with you and so it’s been amazing the way we’ve been able to connect through our music.
ANGUS: How did that whole sort of process come about? Did she reach out to you?
LINDSAY: She did, she did. It was you know it was completely unexpected. Last October, I just got a letter you know saying that I already have forgiven you and just reaching out. And even then, she started writing songs to me, you know, hymns that had had come to her about forgiveness and about love and God’s love. At the time I was real skeptical and I was still kind of shut off and I got this letter from this woman saying that she’s my victim’s mom that she forgives me. It was tough but I wrote back in good faith and hoped that this was real and it turned out to be very real and I mean the most incredible experience I’ve ever seen you know just when I first walked in I met her right here in this room and I didn’t know what to do but I came down the stairs and I just hugged her. I said I’m sorry. She hugged me back and said I forgive you. And we spent eight and a half hours. We sang back and forth to each other about you know God’s love and forgiveness and you know just everything you know how we can find peace and it was just beautiful.
ANGUS: Music and stuff has been quite the bonding process then I guess.
LINDSAY: Yes, it’s been incredible. I get to call her. I get to call her today again actually, you know. And we always give each other songs to learn and she’s hoping to come back in two years. So, there’s songs we’re going to practice for then. I actually got to take a video of it too. So, there’s a video that shows she and I singing it is well with my soul together. They showed that at their church in Florida on Sunday so I sang in church in Florida on Sunday. So that was really cool.
ADAM: Lindsay said the day her victim’s mother flew from Florida to meet her, she was stressed out and asked the guards if she could play her guitar to calm down.
LINDSAY: And nobody would let me and I was like, “I’m freaking out,” and so finally they let me go play my guitar and I was like okay and I started singing and I was like, “there we go, now I’m okay.” and so that’s you know, we are set to certain times we can practice and stuff but a lot of times the guitars are really cool because you know they see it as something constructive that we’re doing and they’ll let us if there’s not a bunch a crowd, you know, a line out there waiting of people to practice their guitar. They’ll let us go practice our guitar pretty much any time.
ADAM: Lindsay spent 11 years in the Army, even obtaining the rank of sergeant. She recounts a story from when she was deployed to Kuwait in 2011.
LINDSAY: My intelligence NCO comes to me and he’s like “I heard you sing.” And I’m like, “well yeah, I do.” And he’s like, “Will you sing for our band?” And I’m like, “Band? What are you talking about? We’re aviators. We fly helicopters.” And he’s like, “well come, come see what we’ve got.” And they had a full rock band and they needed someone to sing for them and so I started singing, no microphone, with a full band, just screaming at the top of my lungs, you know. But eventually we became a really, really quality band. I mean it was impressive.
ADAM: In 2015, Lindsay started off as an officer candidate with a seat in flight school. She was going to be a pilot—a Blackhawk pilot. By the end of 2015, she was staring at a 65-year sentence for homicide.
LINDSAY: And that’s, that’s it. I went from being someone very successful with a career. I got a college education, to being an inmate and that’s you know all people look at.
ADAM: Lindsay said music helped her cope with her crime before even reaching Montana Women’s Prison.
LINDSAY: I know for me, music is really healing, you know when I was in county before I was sentenced or convicted or anything like that every Sunday morning I would wake up and sing hymns as loud as I could because we were locked down besides you know about four hours in the afternoon we would get out. So I would sing all day and people would ask, they would give me requests of songs they want to hear. There’s people who, like me when I was in county, there was some girl down on the lower tier who would sing back and we would have vocal battles back and forth. And I don’t know who that person was. I have no idea who it was. She had a great voice. We could really sing to each other. Music has a way of really soothing people and bringing people together you know a lot of people who maybe wouldn’t get along otherwise are finding this connection and they are able to identify with each other because of it.
[HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN]
ADAM: You just heard the group perform the classic folk tune “House of the Rising Sun,” popularized by The Animals, with inmate Susie Schaaf as the soloist.
SUSIE: My name is Susie Schaaf. I have been here at the Montana’s Women’s Prison for two and half years. I started with the program when they started so I’m already in the advanced group. I just love it because I played the guitar on the outs.
ADAM: Susie said she started singing when she was five years old. She started picking chords out on the guitar at 14 so she could accompany herself when she sings.
SUSIE: I was one of the first ones to get into the program, which was exciting for me. It had been quite a few years since I had been singing. So it really revived my spirit again because music to me is a gift and I shut down after I went through some emotional things in my life and got an addiction and a DUI. And that’s what brought me here. The chance to be able to sing again has given me hope.
SUSIE: Whatever you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it. I do know that we’re human and we make mistakes. It’s a hard way to have to accept the fact that we do make mistakes and have to end up imprisoned. But that does not define who I am as a human being, as a woman. I will do my time and learn in every way I that possibly can to better myself. And again, the music has only helped. It has been a major stepping stone for me to pull it together and express myself and get those emotions out.
ADAM: Susie said the program has changed her direction in life.
SUSIE: For the community to actually be bringing in a program for us was just absolutely wonderful and the instructor ladies are just great. They treat us like human beings. They work with us on an individual basis. I even foresee myself going out there and helping, helping to give back also. That’s just how wonderful it is that the community is backing any programs coming into the prison.
ADAM: Susie said that before she was sent to prison, she worked some with what she called “a little country band back home.”
[ONE DAY AT A TIME]
SUSIE: Working with some of the other inmates, brings me peacefulness, and some compassion, understanding and possibly someday to can help others to learn and play the guitar. I was just really excited about it, knowing that, okay, this is something I can do. I can be a part of this. It gave me hope. That was the biggest thing of all, to think that there was a grant and a program that would offer guitar playing and singing. That’s why I knew it would help me get through the tough times.
ADAM: Thank you for listening to Sounds From the Slammer. Our executive producers are Adam Schrader and Angus Mordant. This episode was edited by Adam Schrader. Our music was composed by David Glenney and Colton Crews. We'd like to thank MWP staff for allowing Angus to visit the prison and record the inmates, as well as keeping America safe. We'd like to thank the inmates for letting us speak with them and air their music. You can catch our next episode on iTunes and Google Play. Visit our website, soundsfromtheslammer.com, or check out our social media for more information and additional content. Tune in next Friday for an episode featuring music from the Wyoming Honor Conservation Camp-- a minimum security forestry camp for male inmates. Prisoners are assigned to crews that fight wild land fires and other community service.