Worcester County Jail inmates change tune in music program

WEST BOYLSTON, Mass. (AP) — Citing Johnny Cash and Chris Cornell as two of his musical heroes, John Wayne Cormier Jr. of Worcester has the look, the sound, the sideburns and the backstory of a rocker.

And, we're not talking about one of the manipulative sob stories that are all the rage on shows like "American Idol" and "The Voice." We're talking real life. We're talking prison time.

Polite and soft-spoken, Cormier is an inmate at the Worcester County Jail & House of Corrections. But, when he plays a guitar and sings lyrics that he just penned minutes earlier, he has the makings of a rock star.

"So far it has been amazing, just to have professionals here to teach us while we're in custody, to give us a chance to learn something and become better people in the end and express ourselves through music," Cormier said. "We wished we had more time to do it. It's funny to say that because we're incarcerated but we wish we had more time to do it ... It put it all in perspective and it has just made my whole horizon a lot bigger."

Melissa Martiros, director of music at Anna Maria College, is conducting a music program for inmates at the Worcester County Jail & House of Correction.

The 13-week "OpporTUNEity" program features two Anna Maria College professors and four interns (all freshmen music majors at the college) and culminates with an inmate performance on Dec. 13.

Martiros said the money that the correctional facility is paying Anne Maria College to run the program is helping to underwrite the expense of their main OpporTUNEity program, which is a nationally recognized, award-winning engagement initiative for underserved youth and children with special needs in Worcester.

Instructor Tom Wilson said teaching the program is extremely rewarding.

"This in my favorite part of the week and that's not a lie. It feels like we're doing something real. Some of the students that we have here are extremely talented and it feels like we're giving them an outlet that they need," Wilson said. "Some of the poems that have come out of this class have been astonishing. There are some folks here that can really sing powerful and touchingly. It's great."

Instructor Daniel Thomas said they are trying to give students a creative outlet and a positive way to work out what they are feeling while they are here.

"The guys who are in here have a lot of time to think about why they got here and what they're missing on the outside," Thomas said. "This outlet can help them to release that tension, release their thoughts and their fears and their anger, things that make them sad or happy but do it in a constructive, positive way which allows them to feel like they produced something of value by the end of the course."

As for the inmates that signed onto the program, all are sentenced to be incarcerated for two years or less, mostly for crimes related to drugs and alcohol.

Worcester County Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis said the inmates are spiritually growing because of the program and you can feel the camaraderie between the inmates and the positive results of the music therapy and technical lessons that they are getting.

"It's a therapeutic program for the inmates to be involved in a music program where they share their thoughts and some of their frustrations and issues they are dealing with and be able to express those in a very positive way through music and they're learning skills at the same time and they're sharing those with each other," Evangelidis said. "This is just another therapeutic tool to have inmates participate in to help change them as people and make them less likely to reoffend when they get out."

David H. Tuttle, superintendent of the facility, agrees with the sheriff.

"This is a really cool program with all the skills that it has given the inmates from, not just learning about music but thinking about their lives and thinking about where they're at, having some reflection but being able to put that into song and get up and perform it to," Tuttle said. "We're showing people that there are other activities they can participate in besides doing drugs."

The consensus of the 15 inmates that make up the incarcerated class said the program is a cathartic and rewarding experience.

"I think it's a wonderful program," Christopher Chimirri of Worcester said. "It actually makes me think that I have some hope in my life. Hopefully, they get more funding for this program because I think it really would help a lot of the inmates here to have something to look forward to when they go home."

Matthew Miles, who goes by the musical moniker of "100 Miles" in the Worcester hip-hop and rap scene, also loves the program.

"It's a great thing for us. It gives us a lot of inspiration and a chance for us to express our feelings and vent out in a positive way. It gives us a chance to bond together as inmates. We go back with a feeling of accomplishment after each class and it is definitely something we can use when we leave."

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Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com