Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Reaching for the music in a young prisoner's soulby Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
Red Wing, Minn. — Every week, Bea Hasselmann walks past the razor wire-topped security fence and into the state's oldest juvenile detention facility to show young men how music can affect the soul.
"It's the most wonderful time of the year," they sing as the volunteer choral conductor urges them on in a pre-Christmas concert rehearsal.
But there have not been a lot of wonderful times lately for the young men in this chorus at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Red Wing. Many of them are felons, convicted of violent crimes.
"They rolled into a life on the streets, and a lot of times that's through gang life," Hasselmann said recently at the 122-year-old campus that functions mostly as a school. "They see themselves as people who don't have an interest in norms that we go by, so they're a very troubled population that we manage."
The 90 residents rise at 6 a.m. and either attend classes that last through the day, or work if they already have a high school diploma. When they're not studying or working, there's time for other pursuit, such as carpentry, athletics — or singing led by Hasselmann.
She founded and still directs the Twin Cities-based Metropolitan Boys Choir. But every week for the past 10 years she has also volunteered one day at Red Wing.
"I'm not condoning anything they've done," she said of her incarcerated students. "But they are really caring and hurting and giving young men."
Hasselmann is one of 160 volunteers at the facility, in addition to the security staff and the teachers who conduct classes. Sentences at Red Wing average 17 months, and residents range in age from 16 to 21 years old. Besides attending school, the young men get treatment for addiction or other problems. Corrections officials also say 60 percent of the residents have mental health problems or learning disabilities.
Singing in the juvenile detention facility chorus is voluntary but is earned by good behavior and following rules. To earn privileges, the work to ascend a scale of increased trust earned through good behavior and other accomplishments. Those reaching the highest level are allowed outside the facility and its security fence into the community. They volunteer at nursing homes and help the city of Red Wing with municipal projects. As their release nears, the young men get help finding work and adjusting to life outside. There's also some follow up after release.
In addition to those of the facility, Hasselmann imposes her own rules on her Red Wing students — the same ones she has for all her chorus members, including good posture, with hands out of pockets. And she insists on everyone's undivided attention.
"She tells us to keep eye contact on her," one of the students said. "She just makes us focus."
"No one likes getting off track and making Mrs. Hasselmann mad, because she's a really nice lady and volunteers a lot of hours here to come and sing with us," said another young man. "I personally won't mess up opportunities like that and get off task."
Hasselmann said self interest is part of her motivation for working with the Red Wing chorus: She wants anyone getting out of a correctional facility and maybe moving in next door to her ought to have had his heart and soul touched by music.
In return, "They see this unconditional love that's being displayed, they get relaxed, they feel safe, and then they can find out some of this talent that they have," said Otis Zanders, who was superintendent of the Red Wing facility for more than 15 of his 34 years at the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
Ten years ago he and Hasselmann met to talk about a way to bring choral music into the lives of some of the young men at Red Wing, many of them chronic offenders from what he calls a toxic home life. Many judges do not consider them amenable to treatment. But Zanders said the assignment given the corrections staff is to turn the young mens' lives around.
Hasselmann has helped to do exactly that.
- All Things Considered, 11/25/2011, 4:53 p.m.