Hamilton

Rita Chiarelli is back behind bars for another musical project

Nearly a decade removed from a documentary project that saw her make music with the inmates of a men's prison farm in Angola, Louisiana, the Hamilton Juno-winner is now embarking on a similar documentary endeavour.

The Juno winner is filming a documentary at the Topeka Correctional Facility for Women in Kansas

Hamilton Blues musician Rita Chiarelli is working on a new documentary out of the maximum security wing of the Topeka Correctional Facility for Women in Kansas. (Folk Alliance International/YouTube)

Pain has long been at the heart of the blues — and Rita Chiarelli is heading back to a place where it's all too prevalent.

Nearly a decade removed from a documentary project that saw her make music with the inmates of a men's prison farm in Angola, Louisiana, the Hamilton Juno-winner is now embarking on a similar documentary endeavour.

This time, it's at the Topeka Correctional Facility for Women in Kansas. Chiarelli is there this month teaching inmates to play music and listening to their stories — all leading up to a May 4 jailhouse concert alongside these incarcerated women.

"We think we're so far removed from these people, and I'm telling you, we're not. Some of them, it's just a moment — it's a moment of madness," Chiarelli said in a phone interview.

"There are different circumstances that have brought them to this situation. There's also social injustice, poverty, racial injustice.

These women are missing out on the beautiful release when you yell out a song or whisper it.- Rita Chiarelli

"It's not always bad people who do bad things. It happens to a lot of good people, too."

Chiarelli has experience behind bars, stemming from her 2010 prison film Welcome to the Big House, made alongside director Bruce McDonald of Hardcore Logo fame.

After that film garnered positive reviews at film festival showcases, she was then invited to Kansas City two years ago for the Folk Alliance International annual conference, where the organizers said she should revisit the Big House concept at a local prison.

While the male prison in Louisiana had instruments and a music program, "the women's prison had nothing," Chiarelli said.

Bereft of any instruments, what the prisoners did have was stories. Stories of abuse and of pain — of a 13-year-old imprisoned, or another who attacked her stalker.

"These women are missing out on the beautiful release when you yell out a song or whisper it," Chiarelli said. "It's a way to release your anger, your love, and your frustration."

Chiarelli first visited the institution's medium security wing in 2017 alongside Kansas City filmmaker Mikal Shapiro to make a short film for the Folk Alliance. Now, the two are working together with an all-female crew to produce this new documentary in the maximum-security wing called Topeka Freedom Singers.

The May 4 concert will showcase songs with lyrics written by some of the inmates. Members of the community have been invited to attend, including newly elected Gov. Laura Kelly.

Chiarelli is currently fundraising to get the project going on Kickstarter, with just over $18,000 raised as of Thursday afternoon.

"It certainly is a labour of love," she said.

"This is a universal story. It's not particular to these women. It's all women."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

About the Author

Adam Carter

Reporter, CBC Hamilton

Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Hamilton home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.

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