The Book of Roma

What happens when a feminist, pacifist, leftist senior citizen goes behind bars on a mission? In Catherine Roma’s case, a choir is born.

Photography by Jonathan Willis

Catherine Roma clears her throat, struggling to read the list of names. She stands at the front of the prison chapel, surrounded by 18 inmates sitting in chairs. After a sip of water, she croaks out the rest of the roll call for the UBUNTU Men’s Chorus at Madison Correctional Institution west of Columbus.

“You sound terrible,” says Daryl Thomas, one of the singers.

“I know,” Roma agrees. “How am I going to sing?”

It’s a nasty cold; the night before, she had a 100-degree fever. I had expected her to cancel the rehearsal, but Roma sent an e-mail this morning assuring me that she’d be there: “Not at my best, but carrying on!” I shouldn’t have been surprised. Earlier, Roma told me her number-one rule in working with prisoners: Always show up. “They consistently have people who haven’t shown up in their lives,” she said.

Thomas, a chatty 41-year-old with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a booming bass voice, is joined by a variegated ensemble that includes an older man with two missing front teeth; a nervous-looking teenager with large wide-set brown eyes; a taciturn guy called “Popcorn” with a neck tattoo poking above his shirt collar; and a quiet, ruddy-faced 30-something, one of just three white prisoners in the group, clutching a folder filled with sheet music.

Despite her cold, the 65-year-old Roma seems to have the most energy in the room. Playing the keyboards while conducting, she manages to squeak out a few verses of “Shine on Me,” a song she wants UBUNTU—a Zulu word that roughly translates to I am because you are—to perform at its debut concert three weeks from now, in early May. She works the choir through the African-American spiritual’s challenging harmonies, making sure everyone is on pitch and singing together. “Is that a renegade solo I hear over there?” she says when someone hits a wrong note, drawing laughter. She whistles loudly when the guys lose their focus—“I can’t yell at you today,” she rasps—and is even more direct when that doesn’t work. “You’re either here or there,” she tells several boisterous young singers, pointing to the door. When the men finally make it through the song, they collapse into their chairs out of breath. “Are you all sitting down for a reason?” she exhorts them.

Cincinnatians who know the choral director’s work expect to see her gracefully drawing lush tones from the throats of the feminist choristers of MUSE, her 30-year-old women’s ensemble; they expect to see her in front of an audience of movers and shakers, guiding a stirring performance of the city’s Martin Luther King Coalition Chorale. They don’t expect to see her like this—wrestling musical notes out of incarcerated men in a bleak cinderblock room. But scenes like this have been part of her life for years. And as she leaves behind the more conventional demands of her musical career, this is where she wants to spend her future.

“Let’s do ‘Siyahamba,’” Roma announces. The South African anti-Apartheid hymn—also known as “We Are Marching in the Light of God”—is one of her favorites. The choir is less enthusiastic. The lyrics are foreign; the parts are complicated for inexperienced singers; it’s the kind of number where everyone must be on his game because mistakes are hard to hide. A few guys groan at the mention of the song.

Though the men of UBUNTU have just a few rehearsals under their belts, Roma has put a big challenge before them—a debut performance in the spring. It’s an ambitious goal, especially for such a green group. But Roma sees this kind of work as a mission, and like any mission it is powered by faith—in this case, faith in the power of song.

She divides the group into three sections and leads them through the song’s three-part harmony, alternating verses between Zulu and English. The singers hit some sour notes at first as Roma works each section individually. “It’s that little hook that messes us up,” she tells the basses. But her instruction seems to help. The singers gain confidence. They sing with more vigor and precision. After the entire choir performs the song, Roma claps heartily. The men laugh and congratulate each other. Even the groaners seem happy. “We’re getting there,” she says.

On a snowy morning in March, Roma greeted me on the front porch of her home in Yellow Springs, a dimpled smile on her face, prepared for a late spring storm in jeans, hiking boots, a turtleneck, and a dark blue long-sleeved polo shirt. She had accessorized her outfit with dangly earrings, tortoise shell glasses, and a subtle expression of her pacifist values—a tiny white dove pinned to her shirt. Her progressive beliefs have stayed the same since she started MUSE three decades ago; her hair color has not. Her trademark long, dark locks are now completely gray.

Roma moved to Yellow Springs from Northside two years ago. Since relocating to the tiny village, she has made long commutes, triangulating between home, Wilmington College—where she’s taught music for 20 years—and Cincinnati, where she serves as the music director of St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church in addition to leading MUSE. But she’s beginning to dial back her commuting. Retirement looms. She has one more year at Wilmington and she plans to step down from her post at MUSE by the end of the summer, handing the reins over to Rhonda Juliano, the assistant conductor of the Seattle Women’s Chorus. Roma will miss the women’s choir she founded (“I live and breathe MUSE,” she told me), but she says it’s the right time for new leadership.

As we sat in a living room filled with art, books, and flowers, Roma told me about a homework assignment she gave the members of UBUNTU shortly after she started the prison choir late last year. She asked her new singers to try to write their own music. A few had already finished their assignments, and Roma was impressed. One guy even came up with a theme song. “It’s so amazing,” she said.

This choir isn’t her first in a prison. She started the UMOJA Men’s Chorus (Swahili for unity) two decades ago at the Warren County Correctional Institution near Lebanon as part of a Wilmington College educational program. Under Roma’s leadership, that group has done well, recording three CDs and becoming the Cinderella story of the World Choir Games last summer. Roma approached Interkultur, the German organization that puts on the international event, about allowing UMOJA to compete, even though as a prison choir the men couldn’t perform in public. Interkultur agreed, sent judges to the close-security lockup to hear the inmates sing, and ended up awarding the choir gold diplomas (top honors) in the gospel and spiritual categories—a moment that, according to Der Offizielle Blog Von Interkultur, left observers “unable to dam up their tears.”

But UBUNTU is a more challenging experience in many ways. This time around, Roma collects no pay from Wilmington College, which lost all of its state funding for prison education programs last year. (She used to receive a small stipend for her prison work.) More important, there’s no infrastructure in place to support her. In prison, distrust, skepticism, macho posturing, and bureaucratic hassles tend to be the order of the day. And that’s the culture where she has to start from scratch, finding talented singers, and teaching them cooperation and discipline.

During a time of dwindling resources in Ohio prisons—and at an age when others are slowing down—Roma has re-upped her commitment to this work. In addition to UBUNTU, she’ll keep UMOJA going in Warren on her own. And she may start a third prison choir at a women’s institution in Dayton; chances are it will be one with a name spelled out in all capital letters, a bold statement about the spirit behind the music.

“I’m absolutely insane,” she said when I asked how she was going to manage it all. “We’ll figure out how it’s going to work. I have a lot of big plans.”

At the top of her agenda is UBUNTU’s spring concert. Over the next several weeks, she wants the men in the choir to put their differences aside, come together, and find their voices. That won’t be easy. “I don’t know anything about these guys yet,” Roma admitted. But she knows one very important thing from past experience: “The music in the lives of those guys is everything. It’s their way out of the immediate situation, and it’s transformative.”

The “immediate situation” is Madison Correctional Institution: 125 acres in the rural flatlands about 30 miles west of Columbus. Two rows of razor-wire fence ring the property, which the state carved out of farmland that used to belong to the London Correctional Institution across the street. Built in 1987, Madison is a product of Ohio’s prison construction boom. From 1979 to 2000, 25 new prisons opened in the state to keep up with soaring incarceration rates.

These days, the state can no longer afford that approach. In the Madison visitor check-in area, a large wall banner declares the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction’s “Wildly Important Goal” to cut the statewide prison population from 50,800 to 48,000 by July. Saving money is the big theme of the moment in Ohio prisons: cutting staff, eliminating programs, privatizing food services, and above all reducing overcrowding (which could save up to $46 million by 2014, according to the state). Today, nearly 2,500 inmates (many with medium or low security levels) cram into Madison, double-bunked in cells designed for one, a practice that’s been necessary since the prison opened.

Up close, Madison feels a bit like an unspectacular college campus—with some differences, of course. On this warm spring afternoon, several inmates walk along winding paths that connect plain, matching brick buildings scattered around a large open lawn. The men keep their feet on the sidewalks, careful to resist the sunny-day impulse to plop down on a plot of freshly mowed grass. Except for the sidewalks and around the recreation fields, the yard is a no-go zone. The prison lifts the security restriction just once a year for an event called, appropriately enough, “Yard Day.”

The prison chapel occupies a wing of the recreation building, which includes meeting rooms, a barbershop, a gymnasium, and a fitness center (one where you’ll find no free weights; those were banned after prisoners used them as weapons during the Lucasville riot 20 years ago). In the chapel, an inmate’s painting of a glowing yellow cross—festooned with blacksmithing tools, for some reason—hangs on a concrete wall. Large windows behind the altar allow lots of natural light, but offer a less than inspiring view of the razor-wire perimeter.

As the members of UBUNTU file into the chapel for their rehearsal, they grab chairs stacked against the wall and place them on the linoleum floor. They’re all dressed alike in blue state-issued pants and shirts adorned with their inmate numbers. They come from most of the major cities in the state, and their ages stretch from 19 to 58. Their crimes and sentences vary: Some are doing short stints; others will spend the rest of their lives behind bars for aggravated murder and multiple counts of rape.

It’s the third Tuesday in April; Roma is down to her last three rehearsals with the men before their first official performance. When she arrives, a prisoner wearing glasses, a blue knit cap, and sporting a thick white goatee corners her before she can begin rehearsal. His name is David Morones, a bald, burly 50-year-old from the Dayton area, and he is upset. “I’m done,” he says, handing Roma his folder of musical scores.

There’s trouble in the ranks—just what Roma didn’t want to hear. Earlier, two fellow UBUNTU members accused Morones of “acting funny.” They thought he might be jealous of them for their prominent role in the choir. Morones denied it and told them he had other things on his mind. Ill health has made it difficult for his mother to visit him in prison over the past year, and his older brother recently suffered a heart attack. But the men refused to believe him and Morones no longer wants to sing with them anymore. “You know, there are cliques in here,” he tells Roma.

Morones’s crimes are fearful: He’s a convicted rapist. But he’s also someone Roma has come to count on. He loves music, listens to instruction, treats others with respect, and sings with all his heart.

And he sings well. Morones has a strong tenor voice, and Roma needs guys like him to anchor the choir, guys she can put in a section to lead the way. They give less skilled singers (“wanderers,” as she calls them) more confidence, showing them how to hit the right notes. Roma has struggled to find men like Morones, and she really can’t afford to lose him. Recently, one of her best bass singers dropped out to take a horticulture class.

She pleads with Morones to reconsider. The choir seems to be gaining momentum—the turnout at this rehearsal is the biggest yet. Earlier in the spring, she had to navigate the prison bureaucracy so that her guys didn’t have to worry about missing their chance to shop at the commissary—where they can buy treats unavailable during regular mealtimes—if they participate in UBUNTU. “You mean a lot to this choir,” she tells Morones. “You mean a lot to me. You give me a lot of energy and strength.”

He agrees to stick it out for one more day, and sings with his usual gusto for the next hour and a half. When the rehearsal ends, he walks out the chapel door.

“I don’t know if I’m going to see him again,” Roma says.

Eddie Robertson’s calm, courteous manner belies his intimidating presence. Standing about six-foot-three, with broad shoulders, a shaved head and a thick beard, the Madison inmate could work as an Isaac Hayes impersonator if he strapped on some oversized sunglasses and wrapped a thick gold chain around his neck. Before coming to Madison, he’d been incarcerated at the Warren Correctional Institution. There, Robertson used to have a job reading picture books to children during visiting hours.

Sitting in an office at Madison, the 55-year-old prisoner puts on his reading glasses and opens the booklet for Extend a Hand, the CD he and other members of UMOJA recorded at Warren last year. He turns to the 13th track, “Making Me Better,” one of five songs he composed on the album, and reads the lyrics, a tribute to Roma, his musical partner for the past two decades.

There’s a part of me

That connects with you

I know—it’s making me better

Everyone can see—that it’s good
for me

They know—it’s making me better

“I wanted to do an anthem for Dr. Roma because she’s given so much,” Robertson says. She came into his life at a critical time. “I was deciding what type of man I wanted to be,” he says, “whether I wanted to be what the courts, the justice system, said I was or who my heavenly father says I am, who my parents raised me to be. And there was this special lady right there, ready to embrace not only me, but every man that wanted to do this.”

In May 1989, Robertson was convicted of aggravated murder, attempted aggravated murder, and aggravated robbery in an execution-style killing at a Dayton carryout. The jury recommended the death penalty but in an unusual move Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge William MacMillan Jr. gave him a life sentence instead. From the moment he was arrested, Robertson has maintained his innocence. His claim—supported by relatives—has been that he was about 50 miles away at a family party in Cincinnati at the time of the shooting, and that eyewitness accounts placing him at the scene were unreliable.

Robertson ended up at Warren soon after it opened in 1989 and met Roma four years later when she started UMOJA. It was Robertson who came up with the idea to record the CDs (all proceeds go to charity), and he wrote 10 songs for them, more than anyone else. “He finds salvation in music,” says the Rev. Arthur Thibeault, the chaplain at Madison.

Robertson was a musician before he went to prison, and he shares Roma’s passion for music. He and other inmates also respond to her respect and enthusiasm. “One thing that people don’t always think about is that these men are just human beings,” says Wanza Jackson, the warden at Warren from 2002 to 2010. “And when somebody shows an interest in the gifts that they have or the talents they have, they respond. Not everybody, but those who really would like to do something different, they respond to people giving them hope and people caring.”

Roma also creates a patient team-building environment. At Warren Correctional, she mobilized the entire UMOJA choir to work with an inmate who was tone deaf to find a way for him to perform. They succeeded: he sang with the others in the World Choir Games performance. Jackson says Roma helps inmates become leaders. It can be hard for a prisoner to trust another incarcerated man, but Jackson notes that Roma has a knack for identifying men who can break through. “They become music teachers,” says Jackson, who’s now the religious services administrator for the entire prison system. “And they help others who are still developing.”

Robertson was one of those inmate leaders at UMOJA. Both Jackson and Roma credit him for much of the success of the group (“steady Eddie,” Roma calls him), though he did miss UMOJA’s greatest triumph, the World Choir Games. He was transferred to Madison in February 2012, four months before the competition. The move—which he requested—allowed him to be in a safer institution with more freedoms. At the time, the state was turning Warren into a higher-security prison with less opportunity for programming. In fact, all of Wilmington’s programs at Warren were eliminated in the summer of 2012, as prison officials had to slash advanced job training throughout the state by about 50 percent.

At Madison, Robertson got involved in music right away, starting a church choir. He and Thibeault also discussed inviting Roma to come to Madison. Robertson wrote Roma a letter. He and two other former UMOJA singers, Christopher Echols and Thomas Finley, also had transferred to Madison, and they all were ready to follow her lead again. When Roma visited Madison last November for the first time, Robertson and the others had already rounded up 16 singers. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I miss this so much. I’m gonna keep doing it,’” Roma recalls.

Steve Borts was one of Robertson’s recruits. The two met at the prison chapel, and Robertson thought the polite, soft-spoken 36-year-old from Verona might benefit from spending time with Roma—someone who might be, in Robertson’s words, “searching for something bigger than themselves.”

At first, the choir intimidated Borts, who’d never sung before. “Scared to death,” he says with a laugh, recalling his state of mind at UBUNTU’s first rehearsal. But Roma helped him work through his stage fright. “Dr. Roma is a real good teacher,” Borts says. “She makes you comfortable.” In a world where self-preservation is the order of the day, that’s no small accomplishment. “It’s easy to go ahead and be vulnerable” when Roma is around, he says.

Guy Banks paces in front of the chapel stage. A keyboard plays the recorded backing track to “Ubuntu,” the theme song he wrote for the choir. With their debut concert a week away, Banks and the others need to master the song, which they had trouble with at their last rehearsal, struggling to get the harmonies right and coordinate its many parts: rapping, singing, and a brief spoken-word section.

In December, the fresh-faced 28-year-old rapper from Columbus wrote the song in a burst of inspiration. He ingested a few handouts Roma gave him about Ubuntu—the humanist philosophy of Archbishop Desmond Tutu—and came up with the catchy, uplifting number about love, kindness, and fellowship. He then worked with another inmate, Montez Mickens, to add music to the lyrics.

After a couple of false starts at the rehearsal, Banks begins to rap. He’s got a nice flow, speaking quickly yet clearly and with a pleasing cadence. The rest of the group worked on the song on their own the previous week, and it shows. The chorus hits its marks and nails the emotional bridge, the centerpiece of the song. When they finish, several guys congratulate Banks and rub his head. “That was the best we ever did,” Banks says later.

The men are working like real collaborators; the scene is a world removed from two weeks ago, when Roma had to whistle to get them to focus. Banks does such a nice job leading the choir through “Ubuntu” that Roma asks if he’d like to conduct the number during the concert next week. (He declines.) She discusses with Mickens his song, “You Are Incredible,” and then tells the choir to pay attention to his suggestions. “Listen up,” she says.

Mickens, a skinny 28-year-old from Columbus with thin cornrows and a mouthful of silver teeth, sings lead on “You Are Incredible” with the chorus backing him up. The lyrics pay tribute to his mother, and Mickens delivers them in a moving, soulful voice. It’s another winner. Roma claps after the song ends. “Really nice job,” she says. Mickens slaps hands with the row of singers behind him. “I love all these guys,” he says later. “I treat them like they’re my brothers.”

Roma suggests they do the spiritual “Shine On Me,” but the guys aren’t thrilled with the idea. When they practiced on their own the week before, they didn’t even bother to do the song with its tricky three-part arrangement. Banks asks Roma if they can cut it from the concert. No dice. She loves the song, and she knows they can do it.

Her faith is rewarded. The choir delivers a wonderful rendition with all three sections clicking. “That was the best that you’ve ever done right out of the box,” Roma says. She singles out the middle group (baritones and second tenors). “You guys in the middle were great.”

Anchoring that section is Morones, who has come back to the fold, enthusiastic as ever, his previous concerns seemingly behind him. Earlier, the group had started rehearsal without Roma, who was running late. When she showed up, the first thing she did was tap Morones on the shoulder. He was so engrossed in the music he missed her arrival.

“Hey doc,” he said.

“I’m really glad you’re here,” she told him.

Roma started working in prisons in 1990, shortly after she completed her doctorate at the University of Cincinnati. She took a job as an adjunct instructor in Wilmington’s then-thriving prison education program at Warren Correctional in Lebanon (where the Quaker school began its prison ministry in 1968) and the Franklin Pre-Release Center for Women in Columbus. “It was my favorite job ever,” she says.

The work fit her peace-and-justice values. After spending five years sheltered from the outside world in the conservatory pursuing her PhD, the prison job gave her a chance to put her beliefs in action. She was raised Catholic in Philadelphia, but became a Quaker after attending the K–12 Germantown Friends School there. She embraces the idea that God is in everyone, that every person deserves respect and has value no matter his station in life. Today, Roma wears those convictions on her sleeve—and on her Honda CR-V. In March, I found her house in Yellow Springs thanks to the eight bumper stickers on the back of her car—more slogans promoting pacifism, women’s rights, and economic justice than any other car in the famously progressive village.

It was the prisoners’ hunger to learn that made the job even more fulfilling for Roma. “They realized—many of them—that they had been in a repetitive pattern, and there might be a way to get out of it,” she says. She estimates about 250 prisoners participated in Wilmington’s program at Warren in those days, creating a mini-college campus at the prison. “The faculty felt so very lucky, so privileged in a way,” she recalls. “We were very tight. We worked together. We talked about how to make things better and how to improve the program.”

A changing political landscape, however, altered Wilmington’s program. Federal funding dried up for prison education with the election of a new Republican-controlled Congress in 1994, she says. Wilmington managed to keep a smaller version of the program going by focusing on practical subjects such as accounting and business, but Roma, with her humanities background, no longer fit in. Wilmington hired her to teach music full-time at the main college and its branch in Cincinnati, but she didn’t give up on prisons completely. The leadership of the college and Warren allowed her to keep the UMOJA choir going. They’d seen the impact it had on the men and wanted it to continue.

Today, Roma says she still finds the same hunger for education at Madison that she found in Ohio prisons two decades ago. Sitting in her home in Yellow Springs in March, she showed me a sheet of paper with the handwritten lyrics to “You Are Incredible.” The composer, Mickens, never sang before he entered prison, she said; now he’s got a beginner piano book to teach himself to play. She wants to recruit guest instructors
to lead piano classes for men like Mickens. “I could be up there every day,”
she says.

UBUNTU members were allowed to invite family to the May 7 concert, a joint celebration of Mother’s Day and Coretta Scott King’s birthday, but due to short notice, only a few make it. Roma thought that might be the case, so she brought some of her friends along, too. Singers from the World House Choir, a Yellow Springs group that she founded recently, comprise most of the audience at this debut performance.

Among them is 25-year-old Christopher Smith, a member of the World House Choir and an adjunct music teacher at the Stivers School for the Arts in Dayton. Earlier in the day, Smith gave the inmates a voice workshop, something they’d wanted since the choir started. The session went so well that Smith vowed to come back. A classically trained tenor, Smith opens the concert with some soaring solos, hitting high Cs with ease. “Sing it, brother!” yells inmate Donnell Malcolm. When the entire World House Choir performs, the inmates award every song with a standing ovation.

The guests return the favor, clapping along to “Ubuntu,” which Guy Banks performs flawlessly, and cheering for “Siyahamba,” conducted by Smith, a last-minute change suggested by Roma after he clicked with the choir earlier in the day. During “Shine on Me”—Roma’s favorite, the song about spiritual abandonment—the woman sitting next to me begins to weep. When Mickens serenades his mother with “You Are Incredible,” his tribute to her, he cries and trips over his words. But his fellow singers urge him on. Afterward, his mother embraces him, along with several inmates. More tears flow in the audience. The naked vulnerability is poignant in this grim place.

Eddie Robertson joins four others in performing a song written by one of the inmates—“Life is Beautiful. ” He doesn’t sing lead in the last-minute addition to the program, but his joyful baritone rises above the others. He sways and dances and raises his arms. He seems like the happiest guy in the room. And he has reason to be. The week before, Robertson showed me a letter he had received from the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. A Montgomery County common pleas judge has ordered DNA testing to determine whether Robertson really committed the crime that put him behind bars. The tests are his big break, his chance for exoneration.

The opportunity began with Roma. Through her, he met Cincinnati civil rights attorney Lisa Talmadge Meeks, a former MUSE member. Meeks got interested in the case and enlisted Kenneth Days, a retired private investigator and former police detective, to check things out. Days became convinced of the man’s innocence—so much so that he spent eight years investigating Robertson’s case, which was eventually taken on by the Ohio Innocence Project. It’s been a slow, tedious process to get this far—and Montgomery County prosecutors may continue the fight even if DNA testing goes in Robertson’s favor. But his spirits are soaring all the same.

As the concert wraps up, Roma adds one more song. With her friend Bishop Todd O’Neal of Cincinnati’s House of Joy Christian Ministries on the keyboards, she gathers everyone—singers, friends, family, and onlookers—in a circle. She teaches us a simple hymn: “God is love,” repeated over and over again, occasionally switching to “God is joy” or “God is peace.” The prisoners and the outsiders are no longer on different sides of the room. Everyone locks hands and sings together.

The song ends, and the prisoners and the members of the World House Choir congratulate each other. A middle-aged woman approaches Mickens, who dedicated “You Are Incredible” to all the mothers in the room. “Thank you for the best Mother’s Day gift ever,” she tells him. I overhear another guest say to a friend, “I can’t wait for the CD.” Indeed, UBUNTU wants to capitalize on the success of this performance. In addition to doing a recording someday, there’s talk about a joint concert with the World House Choir in the prison yard later in the summer, one where the general inmate population could hear the music, too.

The bonhomie can’t go on forever, however. Chaplain Thibeault whistles loudly and tells the men they need to return to their cellblocks. There are goodbyes, then the prisoners file out. They might see the folks from the World House Choir again. Or maybe not. Who knows if the prison leadership will approve the concert in the yard, or if this musical collaboration will take off, or if this group of men will stick together?

But Roma will return no matter what. In two weeks, she’ll be back in the chapel for her regularly scheduled UBUNTU rehearsal. She’s got more music written by the men that she wants to perform and even more challenging harmonies she wants to teach them. The men can count on her to be there, ready to sing with anyone who walks through the door.

Originally published in the July 2013 issue.

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