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Prison Praise - "I Was in Prison and You Came to Me" Recording Music in Prison, by Dr. Terry Harman

Updated: Aug 4

Men praying in prison - bring good tidings

Painful Post

This story is painful for me to post. This is the story of my volunteer work at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. The "Prison Praise" project touched the lives of many inmates and volunteers. Despite the naysayers, my wife was very supportive of the project and encouraged me to push forward.

I do not read music. I cannot sing. I cannot play an instrument. So what would compel a person to set out to record music videos at a maximum security prison? You would have to be crazy to dream up such a thing. Good question! I asked the same thing of myself in June of 2007.

Since 2009 I've debated whether it was a story worth telling. Why? For all the joy the project produced and the meaningful expressions it released, in the end, it hit a brick wall that could not be breached. When the music was posted on the Prison-Praise website viewer comments were across the spectrum from the positive, "Thank you for doing this for inmates," to the most negative stating, "You are a racist for showing so many black men in prison." Others questioned, "Where's the money going? In your pocket, I'll bet."

The truth is, no one, including the prison, individual inmates, or me, profited from the project. Everyone involved agreed this would be a way for the men to "give back" to society. Viewers were encouraged to make a donation but not to us.

While listening to the music consider this. If one of the songs touches your heart consider giving a donation, not to us, but to the victim’s assistance fund in your county or the charity of your choice. Better yet, why not volunteer some time in your community? The rewards are greater than anything you can imagine.

In actuality, my wife donated money from our counseling business to pay for the filming and editing of the videos. No donations were requested. Later in the post, you will learn of a few people who donated equipment and expertise.

The Challenge of Recording Prison Music

Recording music in a maximum security prison with razor wire atop a forty-foot wall, where the gangster John Dillinger was incarcerated was not the challenge. Obtaining permission to rehearse and record music from Superintendent Eddie Buss, including a fair amount of red tape was not an issue. Mr. Buss was more than reasonable. His request, "Do not film our locks, keys or anything that might compromise security. Clear everything with Captain Welch if you have questions about what is permitted."Gathering the men and equipment in a secure location encountered delays but the schedule was always workable. What was the disappointment? I was told by clergy and a Rabbi,

"Prison ministry has fallen off the radar of the Church. There's not much interest anymore." and "Prison reform is not a topic in the synagogue as it was in the past."(1)

However, the volunteers who serve behind the walls of our prisons would disagree. Torah and the New Testament offer a different perspective.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me;

Because the LORD hath anointed me

To bring good tidings unto the humble;

He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives,

And the opening of the eyes to them that are bound

Isaiah 61:1 JPS 1917

For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink;

I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me;

I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’

“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’

And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it

to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’

Matthew 25:35-40 NKJV

Isaiah 61:1 Binding up the broken-hearted

Humble Beginnings

The prison “praise team” actually began rehearsing their music in May of 2005. With the assistance of Captain Samuel Welch, they met for a few hours every Saturday. A cassette recording was made in October 2005. Nine of the songs were original. It was a humble beginning. Superintendent Eddie Buss gave Commissioner J. David Donahue of the Indiana Department of Correction, a copy of the songs in November of 2005. The men rehearsed faithfully but the project did not move beyond a cassette player or the walls of the prison.

Renewed Hope and Interest

On a Saturday afternoon in March of 2007, I was passing through the chapel at the prison. Several men were gathered rehearsing music. I thought they might be getting ready for Sunday’s service. As I listened I realized I did not recognize any of the music. To my surprise all of the music was original.“Brother Earl,” Martin, David, Larry, and Paul wrote the lyrics and the melodies. I could not help but notice the equipment they were using. To say it was in need of repair would be an understatement!

Proclaim the Year of Liberty

Project Struggles to Survive

This is a maximum security prison. At that time, this was the only prison in the state of Indiana that allowed an "offender" to own and possess a musical instrument. That policy was discontinued in 2018. Music equipment is costly and is not easy to come by. Understandably, this type of equipment is not included in prison budgets. The men were allowed to use their income from their prison jobs to secure personal equipment. Over the years, some instruments were donated from "outside the wall."

]The music room was a hodgepodge of hand-me-downs and mixed-matched equipment. For every track laid recorded there seemed to be two roadblocks. Soundboard would go down for no reason. Personalities would clash during long rehearsals. Cymbals cracking from old age, drum heads are just worn out, men being transferred, strings breaking, cables shorting out, and on and on.

But there was something in the music that transcended the poor equipment. The lyrics were from the hearts of men who had been transformed by their faith in God. I told everyone I knew about the music and invited them to come to the prison chapel. That passion kept the project alive from March 2007 until January 2008. Somehow in all the enthusiasm, I became the official “director” of the “prison choir project.”

New Equipment and a New Energy

In late December 2007, it was decided we would take the equipment we had and try and laid down enough songs for a CD. Our first session was on a cold morning, January 5, 2008. You did not have to direct a choir or play an instrument to know we were in trouble. Friends like Fred Norris and Joey DeLeon, who actually knew something about music, agreed to help us. But it was so time-consuming bringing all the recording equipment in from the outside each week through all of the checkpoints. My friends and I were worn out by the time we transported it to the “music room.”

I presented the equipment needs to a friend, Don Schlyer, who was an attorney. Don also owned three pawn shops. Within no time he helped me to acquire new drums, cymbals, strings, and microphones for the prison choir.

Music Videos Anyone!

At one point we were encouraged by Superintendent Buss to video some of the songs during the chapel services. The more we stretched ourselves the more people from beyond the wall helped us. Camcorders and editing equipment were purchased by my wife Kim. Adam Hershman from Take 2 Productions assumed the task of filming the recordings. Interest kept growing.

There was a buzz about the project throughout the prison and beyond. But the greatest blessing came by way of my son Damon living in California. After hearing the song, “Something Better Than This” he donated nearly $25,000 of recording equipment and a soundboard with Protools. One of the correctional officers, Eric Brown, volunteered his time, after work hours, to mix the recordings on the donated equipment. No more puffs of smoke coming from the old soundboard! We started giving staff and family members of the group free single DVDs of each song as we finished editing them. We never dreamed of doing anything more than that.

New Equipment - New Vision - New Commitment

With all of the attention we were getting the subject of was the project about "money or ministry?" No one expected to be in the spotlight of controversy. All of the musicians, singers, Captain Welch and I decided we needed to meet with Superintendent Buss. All agreed and were in one accord the best way to protect the integrity of the project was to eliminate the money question. At the end of that meeting and with the blessing of Superintendent Buss and Commissioner Donahue we decided to include the following disclaimer at the end of each video.

While listening to the music consider this. If one of the songs touches your heart consider giving a donation, not to us, but to the victim’s assistance fund in your county or the charity of your choice. Better yet, why not volunteer some time in your community? The rewards are greater than anything you can imagine.

Web Site Up and Running

When the project started we had enough faith to put the songs on a cassette. It was a stretch to believe we would put them on a CD for family and staff. But to make music videos and have a website was beyond our reach. The website was actually the suggestion of Captain Welch. He knew of one prison in Montana where offenders had their music featured on a website. We moved slowly making sure we did everything appropriately by ensuring every inmate and staff member associated with the project signed the permission documents (Request for Interview) allowing us to use their name, image, voice, and recording. The men who penned the music and lyrics agreed the music should be offered freely to maintain the integrity of the project. Superintendent Buss was later appointed as Commissioner and selected three of the videos to post on the IDOC website. Once again, God was faithful and people helped us all the way.

Snapshots of the Original Website

All Good Things Come to an End

From 2007 through 2009 the website and the free DVDs were a success. I believed that churches would be interested in building upon the project and we could use the videos to recruit more volunteers for the various programs needing volunteers. Individuals came forward to volunteer to be mentors and assist in the faith-based programs offered by the prison. I approached two Christian television stations about telling the story or freely using the videos to promote volunteering in prisons and jails. No one was interested.

Commissioner Buss assumed a new position as Commissioner in another state. In March 2009 I became was hired at the prison to be one of the chaplains. At the time the website was considered a possible conflict of interest for an employee of the Department of Corrections. I voluntarily closed the website to avoid any conflicts. Since 2009 much has changed. The original "Praise Team" had fourteen members. Two of the vocalists involved in the project passed away while in prison. Four vocalists have served their time and successfully returned to their community. As of July 2023, all four have remained productive citizens and have not reoffended. Two were transferred to lower-level security prisons. The remaining six remain at The Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana. Cpt. Samuel Welch passed away in 2015. Commissioner Eddie Buss passed away in 2016. May their memories be a blessing to many.

Music Stored Away

The music videos are stored away on the computer they were mixed and edited on. After fourteen years maybe it is time to resurrect the music from the hard drive and post it on this site. Thank you Professor John Teevan of Grace College for reaching out to me and reminding me of the importance of getting the word out one more time.

One video entitled, "When God Touches a Man" is linked below. If there is interest, I will post more videos and update this blog. Feel free to share your thoughts in the "comments" section.

When God Touches a Man

The opinions presented here are solely those of the author and not any particular Christian or Jewish denomination nor The Indiana Department of Correction.

1 I have purposely not disclosed the identities of the clergy nor their denominational affiliation. Opinions may have changed since 2009.

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