Unique men's choir enters World Choir Games

WARREN COUNTY, Ohio - The World Choir games prides itself on having teams from across the globe entered into the July 4-14 choir competition in Cincinnati.

Numerous Tri-State teams are diligently practicing their routines for the upcoming games. But, one Warren County choir might be the most unique group performing in the games.

The group calls themselves UMOJA, a Swahili term meaning unity. The men's choir practices one day a week for two hours.

While many choirs can practice multiple times a week, these men have to fit their one two-hour practice into their normal routine.  Their normal routine is pretty regimented and it is hard to get any free time. The men all reside in the Warren Correctional Institution.

All the choir members are convicted felons serving time for various offenses. Mark Springer, inmate #215162, committed a murder when he was 20 years old and is serving a life sentence.

Springer says he loves to sing and loves being with his brothers in the choir. The camaraderie, the idea of learning, and doing something positive, gives his life meaning.

Springer credits Dr. Catherine Roma of Wilmington College for giving the inmates an outlet and a sense of freedom.

Springer said, "The choir is fun, it's what I like to do and it gives me freedom while I sing. It's relaxing and an escape. It's also educational."

Roma started the choir in 1993, one of only eight currently in the entire country and thought entering the choir into the World Choir Games would be a positive for the men. The discipline and idea of working towards a common goal would benefit them in the outside world.

Roma went to prison officials to see if it was possible to enter the games. The prison system gave her the green light and she then contacted Interkultur, the governing body of the games.

Interkultur agreed to let the prison choir enter the games. This left one big question: how to judge the choir. The inmates can't leave the prison. Roma said, judges will come to the prison to hear the choir sing. A first for Interkultur.  

While the inmates would love to see the other choirs perform, they realize this too is part of their punishment for their crimes. "Sure, I would like to be there but I did what I did to be where I am at. I have to be able to accept that as well," said Springer.

The men are entered into the Gospel and Spiritual category which is a stark contrast to the barbed wire, heavy metal doors, roaming guards, tattoos and rough exteriors.

"Some of them are incredibly hungry to learn everything and to absorb everything. How they can use this in many ways to transform their lives," says Dr. Roma.

The men blend their voices into one with each practice session achieving correct pitch and tone with each breath of the gospel songs.

Roma said, "There's lot's to be gained if people look into the idea of discipline, the idea of showing up, the idea of staying out of the hole."

As far as winning, Springer said, "If we, not if we but when we show the world what we are capable of doing, when we come together, the world is on for a surprise."

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