El Sistema in penitentiaries

Translated from Spanish by ES-NYC founding member José Bergher.

Sunday, May 25th 2008
The Penitentiary Symphony Orchestra has students in three reclusion centers.
The jails’ conservatory
FESNOJIV plants classrooms in prisons
The figures.-

250 inmates receive music instruction
3 jails were chosen for the pilot project. At year’s end, 5 of the country’s penitentiary facilities will be integrated into the project
The first students have been prepared for the past 11 months
40 teachers, including those of singing, participate
3 million dollars were granted to support the first 3 núcleos, through an agreement between FESNOJIV, the Ministry of Justice, and the Interamerican Development Bank.
3 lutherie [instrument making] workshops for making cuatros [a small Venezuelan plucked-strings instrument from the guitar family] and guitars will be built inside the jails
“When I first arrived here, I thought, ‘I put a lock in my life, I screwed myself. But one begins to live music, discovers its echo, and the moment arrives when you do not so much feel the music score so much but the harmony one has with the instrument.” Thus, rehearsing with a shining violin at a hallway that resembles more a conservatory’s than a jail’s,  speaks a 24-year-old woman inmate who is serving a term in INOF, Instituto Nacional de Orientación Femenina de Los Teques.
Violins, violas, cellos, and one doblebass play in tune the Ode to Joy [from Beethoven’s 9th symphony] behind the walls of this center, one of the three in which the pilot project of the Orquesta Sinfónica Penitenciaria is being implemented. To María, a tall and hale 31-year-old woman, the classes have served as a safety valve, which once in a while takes her out to the street.
“This is a window. A way to get out with music. The profe [familiar for “professor”] used to fight with me a lot because of the long fingernails, but this is part of the effort, dedication, and discipline this means,” she points out.
The plan to humanize jails through music began eleven months ago under the tutelage of the Ministry of the Interior and Justice and FESNOJIV, which this week was awarded the Príncipe de Asturias Prize because of “its deep ethical conviction applied to the betterment of social reality.” 
During the classes, María does not talk about the transgression she committed, neither do her companions. It is a norm in the Orquesta Penitenciaria not to inquire into the causes that brought the person to prison.
“My sister is a violinist in the Orquesta Sinfónica de Barquisimeto, but I had never handled her violin. I did not think that a this age I would be able to feel this harmony with music,” says Maria.  
Besides this Los Teques detention center, music classrooms have been installed in the Santa Ana Jail, in Táchira State, and in the Penitentiary Center of the Andes Region, in Mérida.
In each of the prisons, the System of Orchestras follows a method identical to that of conservatories. The difference is that, at this first stage, the orchestra was divided up by locations. At INOF, for instance, there are only string instruments; at the Mérida jail, winds; and at Santa Ana, percussion.
On April 29th, [in the morning of] the same day when [starting at 4 p.m. and lasting a couple of hours]  there was an energy blackout in 17 of the country’s states, the three núcleos performed for the first time as an [unified] ensemble in a concert at the Teatro Teresa Carreño. Before then, they used to interact by listening to CD recordings during the practice sessions in each jail.
“We were kind of scared, but after ten months’ training there is some self-confidence. It was fantastic! In spite of the handcuffs and two guards per inmate, I did not feel like a prisoner,” comments another woman inmate.
After the first concert, in which 123 male and female inmates took part, the scope of the dreams increased. It is not Gustavo Dudamel or Edicson Ruiz who are being talked about the most in the penitentiary núcloes; most of the inmates would like to follow in the footsteps of Henry Ávila, an inmate who learned to play percussion and, after being freed, was employed by FESNOJIV. 
Ysmel Serrano, general director of Inmates’ Custody and Rehabilitation, explains that the goal is to incorporate to the activity 40% of the population of the jails where the project is implemented. According to the plans, there will be five the pilot jails [sic] by year’s end, including Tocuyito’s jail and the new penitentiary in Coro.
The goal, of course, is to reduce the number of quarrels. “Many tough things happen here. When one thinks he can rest he hears shouts, insults, and fights. Music is a way to leave behind the bad. Furthermore, this is brilliant; my only musical reference used to be King Changó,” says another young woman.
In the jails music has no schedule. The inmates go to rehearsals after they work in the kitchen or in the workshops. However, Lenín Mora, the project’s general coordinator, stresses that the teaching demands certain discipline codes. “They are treated for what they are, talents [talented people], and therefore they have to brush [groom] themselves, clean themselves, and keep a [good] physical appearance. The changes have been incredible,” he says. 
Freddy Ibarra, the Los Teques group’s director, did not resort to the classical scores by Beethoven or Chopin to motivate his women students. He composed two songs for them, and these are never missing from the repertoire: Algún Día [Some Day] and Las Campanas Sonarán Por Mí [The Bells Will Sound for Me]. “The last one is my favorite. With the music we realize that we are worthy human beings, and we want to sound the bell that is struck before being freed.” 


One Response to “El Sistema in penitentiaries”

  1. kcandaele Says:

    I love this story. I’m doing a documentary on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
    http://www.followingtheninth.com Could you write me at kcandaele@gmail.com



    venice, ca


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