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Music-based program aids jail inmates

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Cassie L. Smith, Waco Tribune-Herald

WACO (AP) -- As Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come," filled a small room and a foot tapped under a table, McLennan County Jail inmates scribbled interpretations of the lyrics in notebooks.

The Waco Tribune-Herald reports an inmate started to sing softly in the room lined with handwritten posters on safe coping skills, healthy relationships and one that reads, "Guilt and shame are not the same."

Kayla Ray, 27, paused the music playing on a portable speaker at the song's end and asked the eight men in orange and white striped uniforms to share their thoughts.

The inmate first inspired to sing said when he was growing up, his father played the song on repeat. The song did not register as more than a tune until he was older, the inmate said. Now, after 33 years of experiences, the song is a go-to for times of depression, encouraging him to keep pushing on no matter the struggles.

"It's been a long, a long time coming ... But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will."

The Prerelease Re-entry Program at the McLennan County Jail is part of the McLennan County Reintegration Program, an effort between the city of Waco, McLennan County and the Heart of Texas Region MHMR Center. Ray, a local musician and McLennan Community College student, offered to help add to the program by offering a six-week class with inmates focused on a universal language.

"In the past, my experience with some group therapy, it's really marshmallow and not really real and nothing bad can ever happen," Ray said. "That's not what real life is about. The re-integration program has been great about that. It's more about what do you do to rebuild."

As another song played, another inmate softly said the lyrics reinforce a question.

"The things we've done, are really questionable," he said. "Can God really forgive you?"

The dialogue continued throughout the meeting. One song played. Notes were taken. Thoughts were shared.

Ray, of Hewitt, has spent the past three years touring with her first record, Love and Liquor, while taking classes. She said during her downtime, she has dedicated research to mental health topics. She found herself at a McLennan County Reintegration Program meeting where, as part of an internship, she offered up the idea of the music class for inmates. The idea was to merge two passions, she said.

Each session, she leaves more surprised than before, she said. The group of men have embraced the program and are opening up and relating to one another in ways they might not have before, she said.

"People experience common bonds within any kind of music no matter what it is," she said.

The program works with inmates eligible for release within 30 to 120 days. Classes focus on immediate-, short- and long-term goals upon release, including housing options, grief, parenting, anger management, cognitive skill building, interview skills, financial decision making and more.

Ray's last day of class is May 4, the same day as the release of her second record, Yesterday and Me, a concept album focused on triumph in a traditional country, or Americana, style.

The inmates listening and opening up to learning with Ray have the opportunity to change and make better decisions to become a better member of society, said Jamie Schmitt, program manager of the Reintegration Roundtable at the Heart of Texas Region MHMR Center. The eight men around the table did not play as children with dreams of being prisoners, she said.

"Most times, you would never suspect an individual with previous justice involvement because when given a chance, people can change. We heal and we move forward to become productive citizens who give back to our communities," said Schmitt. "We become your neighbors and your employees who pay taxes and vote. It just makes sense to begin helping with the change process while the individual is still incarcerated so that once released there is a solid plan in place to assist with rebuilding lives."

FEATURED PHOTO: Musician Kayla Ray works with inmates March 21 in Waco. She works with them as part of a prerelease program at the McLennan County Jail. (Jerry Larson/Waco Tribune-Herald)