Alexandria Detention Center inmates forge a bond to sing songs of Christmas

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

It's a bothersome Christmas song for a prisoner. All that crooning about troubles being miles away. The troubles are everywhere in this room, between the windowless cinder-block walls and under the large, boxy security camera perched near the high ceiling.

Inmate No. A0145400 plunks out the song on a 61-key electric piano. He's a tall, goateed man with glasses who once toured in "Camelot" with Robert Goulet. His voice is strident, clean, an operatic tenor barely contained by the cold quarters of the Alexandria Detention Center.

"Have yourself a merry little Christmas," sings No. A0145400. "Let your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight."

Inmate No. A0058694 starts strumming a guitar he borrowed from a deputy. Six other prisoners join in for the refrain, swaying in their green button-up jumpsuits, for once not thinking How did I wind up here? but rather How did I wind up in a ragtag choir of prisoners that has less than 24 hours to refine a half-dozen holiday standards for a Christmas revue in the jail's gym for a potentially difficult and uninterested audience?

They practice slowing the tempo to dramatically finish the song, then move on to "This Christmas," an R&B tune they tackle in the spirit of Boyz II Men. Gentle oohs and aahs underscore the sweet, soulful solo of Darrell Farley, Inmate No. A0123667, who grew up singing in the District chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America and used to be an artist and repertoire director for a now-defunct talent firm in Detroit.

Then came troubles. He tried unsuccessfully to raise funds for a business venture, began to forge checks, and has served six months in the Alexandria Detention Center for his latest conviction (bank fraud). And now it's Christmastime in jail.

"This Christmas will be, a very special Christmas, for me," he sings, closing out the song to the applause of his fellow singers.

"Ooh, we're like the Temptations," says Shawn Street, 35, an Alexandria native who's in for two-to-three years for drug possession with intent to distribute.

"I guess it's official," says Farley, 43. "We're a group."

* * *

The group is unlikely. Farley and Street honed their chops in church, belting gospel music by age 5. Henos Fisseha, the 22-year-old with the swagger and frizzy braids, immigrated from Ethiopia at age 5. Six-foot-four Alexandria native Kendrick Mealing, 40, played basketball and installed cable. Five-foot-four José Carbajal, 55, moved from his native Peru to Arlington 33 years ago and cooked in a restaurant to support his family. John Henderson, 35, was a special-education student and became a newspaper sales manager and portrait artist who dabbled in stand-up comedy. The guitarist, Curtis Hillman, 38, experienced the culture shock of moving to the city from southwest Virginia when he was 13 and worked in commercial roofing and architectural design. And the inmate with the operatic tenor, Jeff Dye, was a leading man in regional and community theater, playing the title role in "Sweeney Todd" in Atlanta and touring in "Camelot" in 1998.

Refrain: Then came troubles.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company