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

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009; C01

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.

Hillman says he had a rough childhood and got hooked on heroin (he's in for grand larceny). Carbajal says he resorted to robbery and counterfeiting to help cover the cost of his four daughters' education. Dye got into meth out of sheer stupidity, he says, and stumbled his way to a drug-trafficking conviction and conspiracy charges.

"I never thought of myself as a person who could be addicted, but I proved myself wrong," says Dye, 46, who's originally from Ohio and studied at the Musical Arts Center in Cincinnati. "I don't know how to explain it. It's been the most humiliating experience of my entire life."

Each man's rap sheet is a different length, trailing different failures and broken relationships. Each man says this moment, in this jail, is a turning point in his life.

Farley has 40 days left in his sentence. Dye has 15 years. They couldn't be more different on the surface -- a bald black man with an ear for R&B and a tall white man with 25 years of hairdressing experience and a heldentenor voice -- but their paths crossed when they answered a call for an inmate talent show, which morphed into a Christmas revue with the six other inmates. ("During the holidays it's a little depressed around here," says Sheriff Dana Lawhorne. "It's important to make sure that even though they are locked up, the Christmas spirit isn't locked out.")

They had a week to put something together, which is hard to do when everyone's jailed in different units. Deputies printed sheet music from the Internet. They got to work, running songs when they could align their schedules. They sang and joked and connected in the cell-like activity room with a poster of the word "DREAM" on the wall.

In the music industry, "we'd refer to these guys as raw talent," Farley muses Thursday morning before their show. "If there's a desire and raw talent, then there's the possibility of taking it to the next level."

* * *

In the gym, their warm-up routine clashes with the hiss of fluorescent lights and the echo of walkie-talkie alerts. Dozens of inmates -- each with "PRISONER" stamped in white letters on the back of his jumpsuit -- file in, sit down and make a racket. The group settled on a name that morning: Voices of Change.

They sing of silent nights and joyful worlds and the crowd grows quiet. Farley solos on "This Christmas," drawing shouts of "C'mon boy!" and "That's right!" from female inmates. A proud smile tugs at the edge of Farley's mouth, as though he's back in a Detroit recording studio. No one in the room is ready for Dye to hit the high G in "O Holy Night," but he's been preparing himself for this moment, one way or another, all his life.

"Ohhh niiight deee-VIIIIINE!"

The room erupts into a standing ovation before he finishes the note. Dye bows, as he used to do in 5,000-seat concert halls.

The group closes with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," eight men making a warped Nativity of convicted and alleged drug dealers, thieves and batterers, examples of lives lived selfishly, recklessly, out of balance. But for one moment, this moment: harmony. Troubles out of sight.

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