NOTICE – The Oakdale Community Choir and songwriting workshop inside the prison has been on hold since March 3, 2020 first due to the Covid19 pandemic, second due to current prison leadership that do not want the choir to restart. I (Mary Cohen) have been facilitating a music group at a local youth (“Linn County juvenile detention”) center. 

AND BUILDING OUR NETWORK: IMAJIN Caring Communities….come join us!

The International Music and Justice Inquiry Network: IMAJIN Caring Communities is a global group who meets monthly to network & share practices and research with music-making in prisons.

We welcome interested parties to join.
Each zoom meeting involves brief informal introductions & sharing about one project. Contact mary-cohen@uiowa.edu to receive emails about upcoming meetings. Zoom link to connect.

UPCOMING MEETINGS: Check your time zone!

July 11, 2024 at 7 AM Chicago USA time: Working meeting for collaboration & planning.

October 2024: Nicole Morse sharing Community Hotline for Incarcerated People South (CHIP) Florida

November 12 2024: Laura Caufield & Mandy Gardner discussing upcoming edited book Arts in Criminal Justice and Corrections: International Perspectives on Methods, Journeys, and Challenges (2025)

December 2024: Sandra Sinsch-Gouffi: “Music offers in the Uchtspringe (Saxony-Anhalt) forensic psychiatric hospital: Conditional factors for strengthening resources and promoting participation, social learning and cultural education”


May 10, 2024 at 4 PM Chicago/May 11 at 7 AM time Australia: Dr Bonnie McConnell is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Music at the Australian National University. She is co-founder of the Musical Care International Network which facilitates international and interdisciplinary knowledge exchange relating to musical care.  

APRIL 24, 2024 from 3:30 -4:30 PM Central Standard Time (Chicago USA): Song and poetry sharing from students in Dr. Mary Cohen’s Music & Peacebuilding Class & new original song “There Is Always a Chance to Achieve the Impossible” by Mimi Bornstein with DocSong and Oakdale Choir member Anthony Rhodd from the Inside Outside Songwriting Collaboration Project. Link to the recording.

MARCH 28, 2024 at 5-6 PM (note time change) Central Standard Time: Dr. David Lindsay shared his dissertation research, “The Role of Musicking in Carceral Environments in England and Wales” and we listened to one original song “Welcome” by Sara Garnier and Oakdale Choir member Dan Hicks from the Inside Outside Songwriting Collaboration Project. Link to the recording.

FEBRUARY 22, 2024 at 7 AM Chicago/USA time: Rijul Kataria, The Yuva Ekta Foundation, Delhi, India, empowering children in conflict with the law through the arts. The presentation covered their experiences of working with ‘Children in Conflict with Law’ in Delhi, India, over the last 10 years using various modalities of Expressive Arts. Rijul highlighted the challenges of working in the field of Juvenile Justice and why Expressive Arts need to be re-imagined, particularly within the Indian setup. Watch the recording of this amazing session.

JANUARY 18, 2024  Link to Zoom Recording. Sharing of original songs created by Inside Outside Songwriting Collaborators (incarcerated songwriters + outside songwriters) and learning about Bending the Bars Original Album (Broward County Jails) the new In-Just-Us program (Connecticut) from L LeDonne.

THURSDAY, December 14, 2023 at 8:30 AM Chicago USA time:

Prof. Dr. Annette Ziegenmeyer, Julia Peters, and Andreas Heye presented Auftakt: Music as a resource for development and (re)socialization of system-impacted young people and adolescents” (a research and practice project around Musical activities and programs for system-impacted youth and young adults). Link to Zoom recording. 

Dr. Ziegenmeyer is based in: University of Music Luebeck, Germany 

Thursday, November 30 at 3:30 PM Chicago/Central Time, Mark Katz, John P. Barker Distinguished Professor of Music, Founding Director, Next Level Cultural Diplomacy Program, Associate Chair for Academic Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mark and Alim Braxton are co-writing Rap and Redemption on Death Row: Seeking Justice and Finding Purpose Behind Bars. Alim is on death row in North Carolina and is an incredible musician. Here is a powerful video he created LIVE on Death Row. Listen to this podcast “Hip-Hop and Friendship on Death Row” to hear them interviewed on Sound Expertise.

We will also welcomed musician and activist Malal Almamy Talla from Senegal who has been leading a Hip Hop Festival in a Senegal prison for several years. See this information about his Guediawaye Hip Hop program. Link to zoom recording.

Thursday, October 26, 2023: Annie Buckley, founder of Prison Arts Collective and Professor of Art & Design at San Diego State University, California. Link to zoom recording.

Thursday, September 14, 2023: Link to zoom recording. Sharing of 2 original collaborative songs created summer 2023. We continue to build our Inside Outside Songwriting Collaboration Project with more partnerships and further dialogue between incarcerated and non-incarcerated songwriters. 

Thursday, August 10 at 3:30 PM Central Standard Time (link to zoom recording). Sharing of 7 original collaborative songs created summer 2023. We had 14 partnerships = 14 incarcerated songwriters paired with 14 songwriters from across the US and England. Here is a document with the lyrics from these songs.

July 13, 2023 from 2:45-3:45 PM Central Standard Time. Dr Patrick Horton, David DeAngelis, & Sebastian Ortiz discussed: The Arts & Music Programs for Education in Detention Centers (AMPED): A music mentorship program that connects Northwestern students with incarcerated young men at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. This program was founded by Dr. Maud Hickey, Northwestern University Music Education Professor. Link to recording of our meeting.

Thur June 22, 2023: Áine Mangaoang & Lucy Cathcart Frödén, Department of Musicology, University of Oslo, Prisons of Note project

Link to recording of June 22, 2023 meeting

Thur May 25, 2023: Prof Fergus McNeill from University of Glasgow (PDF resources)

Thur April 27, 2023: Prof Murray Lee from University of Sydney 


NOTICE – since March 2020, the Oakdale Community Choir has pivoted and completed choir events with outside singers and formerly incarcerated singers:

  • starting a new community singing circle in Iowa City: October 21, 2023
  • recording of “Rise” in spring 2022 for Songs in the Key of Free
  • performance at the Inside Out Reentry Fundraiser on May 21, 2022
  • performance of Mary Cohen’s original song “May My Tears Water a Sapling” on April 29, 2022 for the Anne Frank Tree Planting Ceremony
  • performance for Peace Pole Dedication in Iowa City September 21, 2021.
  • 2023 summer songwriting collaborations between incarcerated and non-incarcerated songwriters through corrlinks, phone calls, & video visits

Music-Making in U.S. Prisons, book cover

Mary L Cohen & Stuart Paul Duncan’s book, Music-Making in US Prisons: Listening to Incarcerated Voices with Wilfrid Laurier University Press is available. Read this book review published June 21, 2023.

You can order the book through your favorite bookstore. Check out this series of 4 short (15 minute) podcasts with conversations with Mary & Stuart and with Lee Willingham who also has a new edited book (Community Music at the Boundaries) where Mary Cohen has co-authored a book chapter with Oakdale inside singer Richard Winemiller and with Johnathan Kana.

Book Review: ‘Music-Making in U.S. Prisons’ by Mary L. Cohen and Stuart P. Duncan – Little Village Magazine.  Posted on Jan 10, 2023 by Genevieve Trainor

Collaborating with Wilfrid Laurier University Press to publish Music-Making in U.S. Prisons, by Mary L. Cohen, November 16, 2022, Wilfrid Laurier University Press news

*** The Authority File podcast:
#232 (Dec. 8, 2021) – Looking at Community Music: A Fluid Definition
#234 (Dec. 15, 2021) – Looking at Community Music: Music-Making in Prisons
#236 (Dec. 22, 2021) – Looking at Community Music: Activism, Resources, and Current Movements
#238 (Dec. 29, 2021) – Looking at Community Music: Can it Thrive within Higher Education

Featured article: A powerful collaborative autoethnography exploring indigenous knowledge, solitary confinement, and group singing by incarcerated choir member Anthony Rhodd & founder of Oakdale Community Choir Mary Cohen:
“Finding Mountains with Music: Growth and Spiritual Transcendence in a U.S. Prison” in Religions 2022, 13(11), 1012

We encourage you to explore the “Resources” under the Press menu for links to many podcasts, articles, and resources about the Oakdale Choir. We also invite you to visit the “performances” link to hear recordings of some of our past 10 years of concerts. The choir is currently on hold until we have permission to collaborate with incarcerated songwriters and singers, and to go inside the prison to sing together.

On December 4, 2020 we offered “Listening for the Light Within,” a live Listening Exchange virtually. We sang together, listened to recordings, and learned about steps toward Decarceration. – View Zoom recording

The Oakdale Choir Community stands for creating caring communities personally and collectively. We acknowledge the racist and oppressive practices that have been a part of the U.S.’s founding and history, and have been present in music education and music studies in the U.S. We encourage all U.S. citizens learn about this history, listen to each other’s stories, reflect deeply on our own biases and beliefs, and work toward creating healing justice in our individual and collective lives. We encourage all musicians to examine the Alliance for the Transformation of the Musical Academe.

On May 15, 2020, we hosted “Listening for Communities of Caring,” a virtual Listening Exchange with art, writing, and songs from incarcerated singers. Click Virtual Listening Exchange to hear a recording of it.

We hope you are building a community of caring within yourself and among all you encounter. Covid-19 can teach us the power of interconnection. The Oakdale Choir is comprised of men incarcerated in the Oakdale Prison (the Iowa Medical and Classification Center) and people from the community is founded on a concept of interconnection: Ubuntu.  Since mid March 2020, we have not met in the prison gym to rehearse. Outside singers rehearsed virtually through the end of the spring 2020 season, we exchanged writing reflections with the inside singers, and a group of University of Iowa Liberal Arts Beyond Bars students completed EDTL 2670: Peacebuilding, Singing, and Writing in a Prison Choir. In the spring 2021 season, a group of University of Iowa students completed this course virtually.

We invite you to reflect upon two lines from a new song, “Blessing for the Oakdale Choir,” by Dorothy Whiston and Mary Cohen:

“May the hope that comes from caring help us to be more daring, as we seek to build up others and we share our lives. . . .May we listen clear and clean with care and curiosity. May we support, inside and out, with ripples of care.”

Redemption Songs

Outside Singer and graduate of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program, Andy Douglas, has published a new book (April 2019) about the Oakdale Choir: REDEMPTION SONGS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A COMMUNITY PRISON CHOIR. [press release]

About us

The South African concept, “Ubuntu,” provides the primary framework for the Oakdale Community Choir. Ubuntu means “a person is a person through other people.” One inside singer expressed this idea in a writing reflection: “Being in prison is especially hard for a lot of people because there is so much negativism.  I’ve learned through our few practices and meeting people from the outside world that we are human, and that is a very strong self-esteem builder.”

The goals of the Oakdale Community Choir are to provide choral singing experiences for men (inside singers) in the general population of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (Oakdale Prison) who are not restricted to their units and for women and men (outside singers) in the community who have an interest in learning more about issues in the prison system locally and across the state and nation.  Together we have formed a “Community of Caring” that we look to expand in new and creative ways. We have many collaborative aspects of the program such as reflective writing exchanges (see “Newsletters” for excerpts of the writing since we began in 2009), its mutual benefit for both inside and outside singers, the partnership between the University of Iowa and IMCC, our connections with the Iowa Department of Corrections Victim Services and Restorative Justice Programs, and associations with community organizations through our concerts.

At the culmination of the season, the choir performed two themed concerts in the prison gym. One concert is for people incarcerated at IMCC, a second concert is for approved guests. We audio record the second concert and distribute these CDs to approved family members or friends of the inside singers. If you are interested in attending an upcoming concert, contact Mary Cohen at mary-cohen@uiowa.edu and request your name to be on the guest list.

The Songwriters’ Workshop at IMCC grew naturally out of the choir’s writing component. Inside singers are quite prolific and we regularly perform original songs at our concerts. We have created over 150 original songs. One audience member shared these reflections: “I have been to prisons in the system hundreds of times as part of my work, and I have to say this is the first time in 35 years I have seen anything in the system that inspired me. I was particularly moved by the decision to sing songs composed by the ‘inside’ members of the choir.”

Oakdale CD Artwork

Past Concert information:

“Remember: Be Love” was the theme of the December 10 & 12, 2019 concerts. The Fall 2019 season’s overall theme was Gratitude and Love. Click the “performances” link for audio files from these performances.

On October 17, 2019 we welcomed 70 music education Ph.D. students and 30 faculty members from across the Big Ten for a special performance, sing-along, and discussion as part of the Big Ten Academic Alliance Music Education Conference hosted by the Music Education Department at the University of Iowa.  See this link for more information about the BTAA.

Our Spring 2019 concert themed “Building Bridges to Peace” was a success! We performed for 226 outside guests on Saturday, May 4, 2019. The audio files from this concert are available on the “performances” link.

The Spring 2018 concert was in the Oakdale Prison Gym on Saturday, April 28 at 1:30 PM in the afternoon. The Concert Theme was “Forgiveness, Kindness, Peace, and Gratitude.” We sang five original songs, shared one original poem, and performed two original arrangements including “The Road Less Traveled” from the 2017 BBC Radio 2 award winning folk album Songs of Separation from Scotland. Visit the PERFORMANCE link on this page to listen to audio recordings from the  concert. See “performance” link for audio recordings of the past three concerts, as well as “original works” link for 13 of our 131 original songs.

Information about our December 2017 concert:

Thanks for visiting our website! Our December 13, 2017 concert themed “May I See Beauty Too” was a wonderful success. We sang 20 songs including eight original songs plus one inside singer recited a poem “Hope and Light,” collected peanut butter for our local North Liberty and Coralville Food Pantries and cash or check donations to The Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance. We also had a sign-up to donate furniture to the InsideOut Reentry Organization. 

The Inside Singers

THE INSIDE SINGERS is a film about the Oakdale Choir, a groundbreaking Inside/Outside choir program in a large medium security prison in Iowa. Kolen learned about it because his mom is one of the outside volunteers.

“The Inside Singers” won BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT at the Cinema on the Bayou Film Festival, January 2024!

Check out the film’s first 3 minutes at this link.

Nearly every week since 2009, around 30 inmates (the Inside Singers) and 30 outside volunteers (the Outside Singers) compose original songs, share written reflections, and perform together at the Oakdale Prison for incarcerated audiences and outside guests. The film follows several of the inmates who are in the group.

Dan spent 5 months in 2015 filming, and is in the middle of editing the 80+ hours of footage. Production was bare bones and cost around $1200 out-of- pocket, but after post production, to be seen by a wider audience, it will be more expensive, and will need more outside work. It’s exciting to be at this stage in the process, and there are lots of ways people can get involved in addition to or instead of contributing to post-production efforts. Even watching the 3 minute link helps! Other ways: choose positively-charged, people-centered language: “Support returning citizens,” “People who are in prison,” “People who are healing from crime.” Additionally, consider organizing restorative justice programs in your local work places, schools, and communities.

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