Day 6

Beating the blues with blues: Rita Chiarelli takes music and salvation to imprisoned women

Hamilton blues musician Rita Chiarelli just returned from a visit to a women's prison in Topeka, Kansas, where she helped inmates learn to write, sing and put on a concert. Chiarelli says the music gave them a sense of hope and humanity.

'These women, one by one, would share their lives with me,' says Chiarelli

Blues musician Rita Chiarelli performs with the Topeka Freedom Singers at the Topeka Correctional Facility for Women in Kansas. (Rita Chiarelli/Mikal Shapiro)
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When Rita Chiarelli first visited the Topeka Correctional Facility for Women in Kansas two years ago, she knew there were stories to be told — and voices to be honed.

Chiarelli is a Juno Award-winning blues musician based out of Hamilton, Ontario. She just returned from her second trip to the prison where she was filming for her upcoming documentary, Topeka Freedom Singers.

Nearly a decade ago, Chiarelli spent time at the infamous Angola maximum security prison for men in Louisiana, filming the documentary Music from the Big House.

There she found inmates with access to instruments, who could sing and who had the means to stage performances.

The Topeka Correctional Facility for Women, Chiarelli notes, had none of that: no instruments, and no mentor to help them learn to sing and perform. So Chiarelli took on that role.

An inmate from the Topeka Correctional Facility for Women in Kansas performs as part of the Topeka Freedom Singers. (Rita Chiarelli/Mikal Shapiro)

She spoke about her time at the prison with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

When you walk into a prison what's the first thing you do to show the people that you're there to connect with them?

I explain to them who I am. That is, I tell them that I'm a musician; I've been a musician and an artist all my life. That music has helped me through all the hardships that have come to me in my life. That I was a child of immigrant parents, that we experienced poverty. We experienced a lot of the things that they've experienced. And I try to connect with them.

What did you learn about their experiences when they spoke to you?

Brent, I have to tell you that it was, at times, the most compelling and disturbing accounts I have heard. They talked about, you know, how they got there; what their lives were like. A lot of these women were abused, and a lot of them retaliated against their abusers and found themselves there. It was really heartbreaking.

Inmates at the Topeka Correctional Facility for Women in Kansas sing in the lead up to a concert for the rest of the prison. They'll be featured in the Rita Chiarelli documentary 'Topeka Freedom Singers.' (Rita Chiarelli/Mikal Shapiro)

I'll tell you one a short story from this one gal who's been in there now, in incarceration, since she was 13 years old.

You know, she started out, her mother had gotten out of prison. She was running the streets. She never intended, of course, to to hurt anyone. But she ended up hurting someone.

You have someone who was 13 and now is 21 [or] 22 and has been incarceration, and is looking forward to another nine or 10 years of incarceration. This kind of stuff really makes you wonder where society is at.

You know, if somebody maybe had been around to help this child out when she was a child, maybe she wouldn't be a victim, [and] there wouldn't be another victim.

I am not the saviour of this, but in this darkness what I am hoping is to give you a pinpoint of light.- Rita Chiarelli

And what are you doing there? What is it that compelled you to talk to these women and to be the person that hears her?

That's a very good question Brent, because I asked myself that often. I chose to go into the women's prison because, typically, men's prisons in the States, you know, they get instruments, they get a chance to perform. They perform in front of the prison population. Sometimes they even get out — even in maximum security, they get out and perform in the churches and that kind of stuff.

The women's prisons have nothing most of the time. So I wanted to go into the women's prison and I wanted to go into maximum security. I wanted to hear the stories from the women who had murdered or had done some really horrific crimes.

And so that's what we did. So it brought me to this place where these women, one by one, would share their lives with me; would share what happened.

Hamilton blues musician Rita Chiarelli, performing at the Topeka Correctional Facility for Women in Kansas. (Rita Chiarelli/Mikal Shapiro)

What do you think it meant for the inmates that you were working with to perform and to realize that they had created this piece of art?

It took a little while. You know, we did everything we could to make this really important for them. It took them a while to believe this.

We finally brought them to the venue, still on the prison grounds ... where they were renting a huge stage, where we were renting a huge P.A. system. And I think it really started to hit home the importance of this project. And they were able to invite their families and they had their moment.

I hope that it tests people's capacity for compassion and forgiveness.- Rita Chiarelli

This same gal that's been incarcerated since she was 13 was, at first, doubtful. And she came in one day and she was in tears and said, 'How real is this? How much does this matter?'

And I said, 'I am not the saviour of this, but in this darkness, what I am hoping is to give you a pinpoint of light. Just a moment where you can be heard. You know? When is the last time that what you've written will be heard?' 

And she wrote an incredible piece. And at the end of it many of them came up and said that lives had been changed. And you know, that was very emotional.

And what do you hope people will take away from the documentaries when we see them?

My hope is that people will see that they are human beings who, most of them were very abused; who were children or young women that society forgot about; that most of them made one mistake; that most of them are paying dearly for that; and that it could be any one of us. That we're not that different.

And I hope that it tests people's capacity for compassion and forgiveness. That's what I hope.

And it is also, in many ways, a very joyous piece after all of that — because there is a lot of rejoicing that comes through in this film.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview with Rita Chiarelli, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.

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