[REPORT] Millhaven Maximum Security 20181019

Millhaven Maximum Security Institution

String Trio, Katrina Chitty, viola: Igor Gefter, cello: Mark Skazinetsky, violin

According to Bill Rasmus, Director Reintegration Services at CSC NHQ in Ottawa and an attendee of the October 19 event at Millhaven, Looking at the Stars may have made history on October 19, 2018. We presented the FIRST classical music concert in a maximum security prison in Canada.

We must thank Warden Crystal Thompson for making it happen. Crystal witnessed our performance at Collins Bay Medium Institution last year, where the same String Trio presented a different program (Crystal was then a Warden there and she liked what she saw). So we did not have to hard-sell our proposal to Millhaven.

The real challenge was to get the inmates to show up. I took two advance trips to Millhaven trying to solicit interest. The prospects looked bleak – I was unsuccessful in meeting inmates and Paul Chaves, Social Program Officer assigned to manage the event was not very optimistic either. “…in 27 years of my work at CSC I have never seen anyone even attempting to do something similar and I do not think it will fly…”. Paul was trying to prepare me for an unpleasant  surprise, but after communicating the news about the upcoming event to inmates, 54 (!) signed up. Paul was shocked. My second visit on October 17, coincided with Paul Bernardo’s parole hearings at the same location, at the same time, but we did not notice Mr. Bernardo in the audience two days later.

So on the day of the event I arrived at Millhaven pretty optimistic. Then just about few minutes prior to starting the programme we were told that the event may be cancelled, because of an internal incident. All of us  – six volunteers, the trio of musicians, the painter, Bill Rasmus, Peter Bennett, Assistant Deputy Commissioner for Ontario and myself were caught completely off guard by the news. Fortunately, at about 3:30 pm 26 inmates showed up. While we only had 60 minutes left for our performance, we did succeed in delivering our message, the music and… the painting.

Our String Trio was under enormous pressure, hence was at its best, presenting an absolutely special program, prepared for this particular occasion – starting with feisty Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmuzik, then continuing with Bach, then with profoundly sad and beautiful Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, sombre and philosophical Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, magnificently melodic and unforgettable Shostakovich’s Romance from the Gadfly, unexpected unforgettable Eagles hit Desperado and wrapping up with remarkably unique melodic and folksy Jay Unger’s Farewell.

The program was simply extremely generous and outstanding and each of the musicians was phenomenal – I seldom use these adjectives, but believe me,  they are well deserved.

The audience, which consisted of mostly young men, was attentive, quiet and ultimately very positive. All the men listened very intensively, with interest and rewarded the musicians with genuine admiration and applause. Several testimonials speak for themselves:

“I loved classical music before your visit and I love classical music after your visit;  I had no future before your visit and I have no future after your visit…”

“I always hope for a better future and your visit made me feel, like I am headed in the right direction…It was a splendid vacation on the other side of the tracks.”

”It’s very touching, inspiring, beautiful… I am very grateful to have experienced it…”

”The rhythm of my hope beats like a drum, For I believe the best is yet to come.”

The prison, empty and grim, its gym with naked walls with hidden severe surprises, gloomy silence, tension in the air, and then an invisible, but easily felt wall separating us-visitors (“the winners”) and them-inmates (“the losers”) and a profound understanding of the uniqueness of this once-in-a-lifetime experience of trying to knock this wall down in less than an hour and creating a common space – a bridge to cross.

The prison bell rang and inmates were sent back to their cells just as this wall started to come down.