by Rhonda McBride
12:20 PM AKST, December 2, 2011
As you head up the spruce-lined driveway to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center near Eagle River, you can feel a sense of isolation. Trees heavy with snow. Frost clinging to the concertina wire on the fences outside, making it appear that time is frozen at the women’s prison.
It’s Saturday. The lobby of the prison is crowded with families waiting to be patted down for a security check before they can visit with their loved ones. Saturday also means something else to the women inside: an afternoon of music.
Gabby Willis directs the prison’s string orchestra program. During the week she teaches high school students.
“I love bringing music to people who wouldn’t get it otherwise,” says Willis. “But here, there’s an extra level of gratitude, an extra kind of focus that I don’t always see from my groups on the outside.”
The program, sponsored by “Arts on the Edge,” began eight years ago. Willis has been a part of it for the past seven.
“All of my students are sooner or later going to get out. What kind of person do you want getting out?” says Willis. “Do you want someone with no skills, who is super angry, who is just going to get back in again? Or, do you want somebody with hope inside?”
Sarah Coffman is one person who’s kept hope alive for 14 years. She’s serving time for her role in an armed robbery in which the victim was killed.
Coffman has been in the string program since it first started.
“And what I need to do is to try and be a better person,” says Coffman. “And this helps with that.”
Willis says she has a special connection to Coffman, because they’re both about the same age, only Coffman has spent all of her adult life behind bars. Willis says she’s thought about how much Coffman missed out on during the years, things that she’s taken for granted. But she believes the music program has prevented Coffman from becoming completely institutionalized – and given her a chance to grow as a human being.
“She has so much more confidence now than she did seven years ago,” says Willis. “She truly goes above and beyond. She’s got a teacher inside her. It’s a natural gift.”
Many inmates at Hiland Mountain find it easier to cope by deadening their emotions. But for Coffman, the music has awakened new feelings and new potential.
“It helps you stay committed to things. That’s a lot of the cause as to why people get in trouble, because they can’t stay committed to something,” says Coffman, who says she tries hard to learn the music, mainly because she doesn’t want to let the other orchestra members down.
“It can be emotional if you don’t get it right. And you know that other people are counting on you, so when you do get it, it’s empowering,” said Coffman.
Coffman tears up, when asked about Saturday’s annual holiday concert at Hiland Mountain. It will be her last one, because she’s being released in February. She’s looking forward to performing with the guest artist, Evan Drachman, an internationally known cellist and a favorite at the Sitka Music Festival.
Tickets are sold out. More than 300 people will be in the audience.
In preparation, Coffman has been practicing every day in her room, which is at the end of a long series of corridors. You can hear strains of “Eleanor Rigby,” as well as some fairly challenging classical music.
Her bed is neatly made. Her pillowcase has a butterfly design. There’s a jacket on the chair with the word, “PRISONER,” stamped in bold, black letters.
“A big part of jail can be an isolating experience. Music is a connector,” said Willis, who has become more than just a violin teacher for Coffman.
“I love Gabby. She’s so patient. I’ve never seen anyone so patient in my life,” says Coffman. And it’s taken a lot of patience to make the most of her time here. And yet she feels so unprepared.
At 33, Coffman will soon go out the doors of Hiland Mountain, not knowing how to drive a car.
“I’ve never used a cell phone, and I’ve never been on the internet,” says Coffman, who says she's excited about what’s ahead but also fearful. She also knows she’ll miss the inmates who have become more than just friends, but family.
But there’s one steady companion Coffman takes with her no matter where she goes.
“Music is so transcending. Music is just like poetry.”
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