- The Washington Times - Friday, October 18, 2002

"Rock star coming through," says an inmate as he and some buddies drag guitars and speakers up a staircase at a maximum-security prison in Pennsylvania.

The concert that followed, performed before cheering, stomping prisoners, was captured in a new documentary series, "Music Behind Bars," which debuts tonight at 10 on VH1.

Makers of the show including Oscar-winning producer Arnold Shapiro, who made the acclaimed 1979 "Scared Straight" prison-life film say they are highlighting the "redemptive qualities" of music in prison.

But when Mary Orlando recently saw a promo of the show, all she saw was the man who murdered her teenage daughter jamming in a heavy-metal band.

"I don't think they should be having a band in prison. And I don't think any of them should be on TV," Mrs. Orlando told Fox News last week.

"I can't understand why VH1 would want to take a group of murderers, who are in prison to be punished, and put their music on a national cable TV show that reaches out to young people," said Nancy Ruhe-Munch, executive director of Parents of Murdered Children.

The Cincinnati group will be complaining to sponsors of the show. "I have no doubt we'll stop it. We've stopped many others before," Ms. Ruhe-Munch said yesterday.

VH1 says its new series is a "gritty and groundbreaking" effort to "enlighten the viewer as to the harshness of life behind bars and to the power of music."

Many prisons allow music and arts programs, but only model inmates are allowed to participate. Mr. Arnold, who has done at least 25 film projects involving prisons, says the programs can motivate prisoners to improve their behavior and reform.

Music programs can also help create a safer, less-violent prison environment, and prepare inmates for a life outside prison, he said.

Tonight's program focuses on Dark Mischief, one of four bands that practice and play in an auditorium at the State Correctional Institution in Graterford, Pa.

Only inmates with good behavior records can be in a band. The prisoners must supply their own musical instruments and equipment. They can only practice a few hours a week, after fulfilling their daily workloads. And they have to perform to good reviews every two months; if the group is panned by fellow inmates, it is disbanded.

"This is the only thing that started to make me feel the love I lost when I was a kid," says a man named Hartwick, who is serving time for assault and who used to be a drummer.

All the shows are different, said Mr. Shapiro. Next week's episode profiles a hymn-singing choir in a New Hampshire women's prison and another features an inmate who writes a ballad to his new wife.

Christopher Bissey who killed Mrs. Orlando's daughter and her teenage friend in 1995 appears for a split-second in tonight's show. The film does not glamorize anyone, Mr. Shapiro said.

"When you watch this episode, you do not want to be in this prison and you do not want to be any of these band members."

This week, Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker responded to Mrs. Orlando's complaints by promising that the state Department of Corrections would begin alerting victims and families when prisoners are going to be on TV.

"We need to ensure that crime victims are never again caught off guard by turning on their televisions and unexpectedly seeing the inmate who has caused them so much pain," Mr. Schweiker said.

Corrections departments "should unquestionably be informing victims" about shows like this, said Mary Rappaport, spokeswoman for the National Center for Victims of Crime.

The big question about the series, she said, is whether it makes celebrities out of the offenders. "That would certainly be detrimental to society at large and would cause great pain to victims."

If it's important to have music in prison, "then let them have their music behind bars, but let it be that: music behind bars," said Ms. Ruhe-Munch. "And it doesn't matter to me that they're women and it's a choir and they're singing hymns. I still think it needs to stay behind bars."


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