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Women's chorus at the Sunflower Festival
Photo by Allie Vugrincic, courtesy of WOSU Public Media

The Sunflower Arts and Music Festival at the Ohio Reformatory for Women was a unique event, not only for the Ohio Department of Corrections but for the entire country. 

Held in early June, the festival showcased choir performances, as well as spoken word performances, art displays and an outdoor concert on the prison yard headlined by the Ohio band MojoFlo

“I feel like [this] needs to happen more to let us feel less like prisoners,” said Angela Shepard, a woman serving a 14-year sentence. “It gets everyone together and gets us out of our heads and out of our beds. 

“When the bass hit from the speakers and vibrated my chest, it felt like home,” she said.

Anticipation had been building over the previous four months — not only for the more than 100 incarcerated women who, like me, were part of the choir, but for the administration as well.

This empowering event was meant to remind the outside community that those of us behind bars are people too. Most of us are eventually leaving and we could one day be neighbors, coworkers and friends. 

Nothing like this had occurred at our prison before. Administration was nervous and you could tell. In addition to the members of the female choir, around 80 male choir participants were brought in from both Pickaway Correctional Institution and Madison Correctional Institution.

The organizer of the festival, Harmony Project, works with different institutions to promote hope. In its work with prisons, it aims to instill an important message: Where we are does not define who we are. 

Over 1,000 tissue-paper sunflowers were made by people from different institutions across the state. Each flower represented a child who had passed away at Sunflower House, a hospice for orphans in South Africa. Harmony Project has long been affiliated with Sunflower House. The choir here has spoken with and sung to the children via video calls.

The event was broken into morning and afternoon sessions. The first session, held in the gym, was full of high energy, good vibes and Harmony Project founder and creative director David Brown’s charismatic personality. 

I was nervous because I would soon be performing one of my poems to the packed gym. I wanted my poem to capture how perceptions affected our mindset. 

Afterward, choir members had a lot to say about their experiences. 

“I felt like I was home,” said Melanie Young, a lifer at my prison. “It made me feel like I was part of the community.”

Brittany Pilkington, another performer in the choir, said the event brought everyone together. “You could feel the love,” she said. “I was on cloud nine after.” 

For me, I left the event feeling inspired to continue advocating for change within the system. I will be released from prison in four months, after nearly a decade of incarceration. 

While I belted lyrics from my heart, I felt love, hope and a sense of freedom. And I realized that I could never forget these women. I have to speak for them. I have to strive for healing and harmony.

The event reaffirmed my purpose: To help change the perceptions of the nearly 2 million incarcerated people in our nation. 

My arms were sore the whole next day from waving my sunflower around, but in that moment I felt nothing but joy. 

As for the future of events like this? 

Annette Chambers-Smith, the director of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction, hinted that this might be the start of a new tradition during her closing remarks by referring to it as the “first” annual Sunflower Arts and Music Festival.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Heather C. Jarvis is a writer incarcerated in Ohio. A winner of the PEN America annual prison writing contest, her work has appeared in the Iowa Review PWP, The Crime Report and The Journal of Woman and Criminal Justice.