“Get ready,” said the big guard. “You’ll be leaving soon.” I jerked awake at the guard’s voice. The orange glow from the clock beside the steel bunk illuminated 3:15AM.
I had planned to stay awake all night and chided myself for falling asleep. I grabbed toothbrush, paste and mouthwash and made for the bathroom. I didn’t know where I was going only that I’d be speaking at a large event somewhere later that day.
Rumors rampaged through the prison for weeks about a secret Harmony Project event. I’m a choir singer in Harmony at Madison Correctional (MaCI). Harmony is nondenominational and we sing popular classics and rock songs. It’s loads of fun, and it’s all about community.
Twelve hours earlier my unit manager made a brush pass as I was on the yard:
“Hey,” he said. “You’re going. You’ve been selected.” He side glanced at the yard and then back at me. “Oh and you’ll be speaking to a large crowd, some poem you’ve written? Anyhow, don’t tell anyone. You’ll leave in the morning. DON’T TELL ANYONE.”
“I won’t,” I said.
By the time evening came rumors caught like wildfire on the yard. One of the Harmony guys was telling people he was “going.” Some jackass was risking all of us not going! I wasn’t about to be the one to screw this up.
As I tugged into my Harmony T-shirt instead of my ugly blue prison scrubs, I thought, Wow. After 29 years I was about to step off the prison grounds. My heart felt like some wild animal in its cage.
I soon found myself in the chow hall with 22 other wide eyed men eating cereals and fresh fruit for breakfast, not the usual oatmeal goop. The Captain, Chief of Security, and a dozen other security staff whispered amongst themselves waiting on us patiently.
“This is weird,” I said to my friend Todd. “Look at all the staff. We’re going someplace big.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “Someplace big.”
Thirty minutes later where the sun had yet to crack the horizon, we boarded the cold creaky transport bus and discovered our destination: The Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW). Upon arrival we’d rendezvous with fifty-five men from the Pickaway Correctional Institution (PCI) for a day long “Harmony Project event.”
That event was the first ever Sunflower Arts and Music Festival.
The festival is the brainchild of Harmony Project founder and charismatic human David Brown. In the short couple of months that I’ve known him, he has changed my life and that of 70 other men at my facility. Little did I know that today he was about to do it again.
The drive to ORW wound along country roads past idyllic ponds and rural meadows. Joy, sadness and excitement pinned me to a roller coaster of emotion. I grew up in the countryside. I wiped tears from beneath my glasses, careful not to let the man shackled beside me see my moment of weakness.
The bus came to a hissing stop at the big gates of ORW, also known as The Farm to its 2300 female residents. I strained to catch a glimpse through the bars and steel mesh covered windows. Women walked in the distance along sidewalks that crisscrossed the yard. Wow, I pondered. It’s like the Commons of a college campus.
Once on the grounds we stepped off the bus. David Brown and our warden greeted us while media crew filmed the moment. “Welcome back boys!” David said. “Glad you guys could come.”
“Uh, we’re glad we could come too,” I said to him. We hugged one another.
Later that morning we assembled in the women’s chapel and linked up with the PCI Harmony men. For us, weeks of practice had led to this day. A day long celebration of song and spoken word events before invited guests, department officials and the 2400 women of ORW. After a catered continental breakfast we assembled in the gym.
180 women in yellow Harmony t-shirts waited on the bleachers in the big gymnasium. ORW Harmony choir participants gathered together for the day long festival. For months they knew of the event, but didn’t know we men would be there.
Pandemonium and cheers erupted from the crowd as we made entrance and took seats at chairs on the gym floor. I couldn’t believe it. These were the very girls we’d seen in recorded videos and through Zoom links in months past. Three prisons together in one place for the first time ever.
I scanned the crowd. There were familiar faces! Women I’d penpaled with over the years, some of whom have written for this blog. The feeling felt surreal.
ODRC Director Ms. Annette Chambers-Smith was in attendance. Until this moment I’d only seen her on television or in the newspapers. In the morning she spoke to us about the vision of the department of corrections, and how important Harmony was to her and us. We incarcerated hold the key, she had told us, to the narrative of who we are. Our crimes don’t define us. she told us that she is also a choir singer in Harmony’s massive Columbus choir. Wow.
The afternoon brought a lawn concert where MoJo Flo, an Ohio band, rocked the crowd to its feet. Tissue paper sunflowers had been planted across the yard and along the walkways. Thousands were passed out to crowd goers. The sunflowers are part of a community service initiative involving Ohio prisons and the Sunflower Children’s Hospice, Bloemfontein South Africa. Harmony has a long history with the hospice and the women have sung to the children in the past.
Spoken word events and musical solos and groups, by the men and women in attendance, kept the crowd celebrating. I’d recited a poetry piece I wrote titled “A Heavy Wait” in the morning to a packed gym of 300 select guests and barely made it back to my seat. So many people stopped me to tell me how much they enjoyed my piece. The day could have ended then and there and it would have been the best day of my life.
“Before we close,” said David brown, “there’s one more spoken word piece for you. It’s a poetry piece titled ” A Heavy Wait” Christopher, where are you? Come up to the stage!”
David motioned at me from afar. The sea of heads rippled across the crowd. I wasn’t expecting to present again. David totally surprised me!
I stood a top the wide wooden stage and peered out across the thousands of women sitting on the grass waving sunflowers. I felt my heart pounding. I took the cordless mike into my hand, gripped it with sweaty palms.
A Heavy Wait is a poem about my journey over 3 decades of confinement. It’s dark and lite. It’s heavy. At times the crowd laughed, at others it was pin drop silent as they took in the meaning of my words. When I finished I looked up to see women crying. And for a moment I was terrified, but the emotion dissipated into unbound joy when the whole of the crowd exploded into the most incredible cheer.
David Brown stood below in the front row facing me and threw me a triumphant fist pump. Whatever I had done, it was good.
Maybe there will be a second annual Sunflower Arts and Music Festival or maybe there won’t. It doesn’t matter because for those of us who attended the event, we came away changed. The day reminded us that we are people like everyone else. Our crimes don’t define us.
*You can watch a short documentary about the Sunflower Arts and Music Festival by going to the Harmony Projects YouTube channel at
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