Hope comes to Washington prison facilities through music, supportive listening sessions

Musicians and Washington State Department of Corrections staff at the Concerts for Hope event at Washington Corrections Center in Shelton on May 28. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Corrections)

The Washington Statewide Reentry Council hosted Concerts for Hope and Listening Circles at four prison facilities across the state this spring in partnership with the Department of Corrections.

The Statewide Reentry Council is part of the Department of Commerce. It was created in 2016 to improve public safety and outcomes for individuals reentering the community.

“These events give those experiencing incarceration an opportunity to feel valued,” said Janel McFeat, the council’s executive director. “It is rare for prisons to host this type of event, so it is often an emotional moment for those who attend.”

The events were held in Corrections facilities at Aberdeen, Shelton, Monroe and Purdy. The event allowed the audience of incarcerated people to find some calmness and reflect.

One said, “The concert made me feel that I am still human and that I am not going crazy and there is still hope.”

Eric Genius, composer and leader for Concerts for Hope at Washington Corrections Center in Shelton on May 28, performing with other Concerts for Hope musicians. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Corrections)

Concerts for Hope is a non-profit organization led by Eric Genius, a pianist, composer and inspirational speaker. Genius hosts hundreds of concerts around the world every year, with the goal of providing dignity to attendees. The concerts include a four-part musical group with a cellist, vocalist, violinist and pianist.

“Eric’s ability to connect on a genuine and authentic level with his audience creates a beautiful and truly memorable experience,” McFeat said. “As a professional who’s worked in the reentry field for over 23 years, this is the first time I can say unequivocally that an event changed the mindset of men and women with no hope and inspired them to see things differently.”

One of the concert attendees said “This concert moved me. Gave me hope that there is more for me behind these prison walls.”

Janel McFeat, executive director for Washington Statewide Reentry Council, leads a listening circle event with Carolyn Hartness, an Eastern Band Cherokee Native elder and Restorative Circle Practitioner, at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton on May 28. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Corrections)

In addition to the concert, McFeat hosted listening sessions for incarcerated people at each of the four facilities.

Listening Circles allow participants to consider a problem or question and take turns speaking, depending on who holds a talking stick or other sacred object. The circle is complete when the stick passes around the circle one complete time without anyone speaking out of turn.

Participants in the circles in May were asked to discuss the value they bring when they put their best selves forward. The kind of support that could help them return to their community, including how the Reentry Council could better engage with impacted individuals, families and communities to improve reentry outcomes, was also part of the process.

Listening Circles have their roots in indigenous cultures. The circle fosters more profound listening and reflection, and prevents reactive communication. As a psychological technique, Listening Circles can be cathartic to participants as they publicly share problems or concerns. This group intervention/activity provides participants with a structure that promotes self-exploration in an empathic and supportive atmosphere .

Participants had the opportunity to discuss how they felt after watching the concerts in May and what else could bring them hope.

“I felt alive, something I haven’t experienced in a long time,” one attendee said.

Because of the success of the first round of events, the DOC has decided to contribute $62,000 in funding to schedule future events at the eight other correctional facilities in the state.

Watch the Department of Corrections video Concerts of Hope: Washington Prisons Hosts Classical Concerts on YouTube.

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