Every Saturday, Sarah Jane Coffman visits Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River — a place she called home while serving a 14-year sentence for second-degree murder and first-degree burglary.
While walking the halls of the prison reminds Coffman of her checkered past, it also reminds her what enabled her to endure her sentence — music.
Coffman was convicted for her role in a plan to steal marijuana from a Willow man that resulted in his death. She did not enter his home and did not fire the fatal shots, but prosecutors argued she was the group’s leader and responsible for what happened, according to a 1998 Anchorage Daily News article.
Her debt to society paid, Coffman now visits weekly to rehearse with the prison’s orchestra. She began playing with the group when it was created in 2003 and will perform at the ninth annual concert this year for the first time as a free citizen.
Coffman was comfortable returning to Hiland Mountain since her release in February, she said during a rehearsal Saturday, Nov. 17.
“It’s almost like I didn’t leave,” she said. “A lot of people that I love and care about are here.”
But, Coffman said, she’s always happy to return to her South Anchorage home once rehearsal finishes.
Playing viola offered Coffman an outlet. The orchestra also helped break up the repetitive nature of prison life.
“Everything becomes monotonous,” Coffman said. “Doing something like that helps you not focus on the bad things.”
Founded in 2003
Nine years ago, Pati Crofut founded the orchestra and a nonprofit that supports it, Arts on the Edge.
Coffman and her fellow inmates immediately seized the opportunity to play in an orchestra.
“We jumped on it,” she said. “There were waiting lists to sign up.”
Crofut hears nothing but positive feedback from the orchestra’s members.
“They tell me it’s the one time of the week they forget they’re in jail,” she said.
The prison’s correctional officers relay similar messages to Crofut.
“A couple of them said, ‘If they’re playing music, they’re not getting into trouble,’” she said.
Crofut said the original group of eight has grown to 30 members today.
“We had to buy more instruments because so many ladies were interested,” Coffman said.
The annual concert is also growing, Coffman said, with last year attracting the largest crowd in eight years.
“We used every single chair in the institution to fill up the gym,” she said.
The show is getting bigger this year, too.
For the first time, the orchestra will hold two concerts Saturday, Dec. 8 at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $30 and can be purchased at www.artsontheedge.org.
Children must be at least 12 years old to attend. Everyone attending must pass a background check and needs to email their driver license number to Crofut at [email protected] by noon Dec. 7.
All Hiland Mountain inmates — not just the orchestra members — get excited about the concert, Coffman said.
“It has a tremendous effect of the institution as a whole,” she said. “It’s something they look forward to all year.”
Inviting the public to the concert is another benefit to the inmates, Crofut said. It helps them connect with the community, she said, instead of feeling invisible.
“They’re proud they’re doing something positive,” Crofut said.
Coffman agreed, citing the concert’s therapeutic quality.
“The community shows them love,” she said. “You have no idea what it does for them.”
The entertainment isn’t bad, either, Coffman said.
“It’s amazing the talent you find in here,” she said.
Along with Coffman and Crofut, another free citizen who will be playing with the orchestra is Zuill Bailey, a world-renowned cellist.
Conductor Gabrielle Whitfield reached out to Bailey, Crofut said, who agreed to come to Alaska for the concert.
Attracting “big names” like Bailey is another positive aspect for the orchestra members, Crofut said.
“It makes them feel really important,” she said.
Whitfield has been the group’s conductor the past seven years. She was approached by Crofut while teaching at Romig Middle School and accepted the position immediately.
Though her future with the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center orchestra is uncertain, Coffman — who works for an accountant in Anchorage — said music will continue play a major role in her life.
“Art is in my blood,” she said.
Contact Mike Nesper at 694-2727 or [email protected]