Rutgers program treats prisoners with mental illnesses with music


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Courtesy of Karen Anne Melendez | A music therapy program helps inmates cope with mental illnesses by allowing them to not only play, but also create music.


More than just a form of entertainment, music is now being used as a therapeutic outlet for individuals suffering from depression, medical disorders and even for inmates attempting to avoid returning to a life of crime. 

At the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, New Jersey, Karen Anne Melendez runs a music therapy program that allows inmates to unshackle their emotions through songwriting, singing, playing instruments and most importantly, through a momentary escape from their daily routines.

Melendez is a board-certified music therapist at the Rutgers University Correctional Health Care, a division of Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care that provides mental and physical health care services to inmates, residents and parolees of the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the Juvenile Justice Commission and the State Parole Board.

The women of “C Cottage,” one of the housing units in the facility, have experienced high levels of emotional trauma because of psychological disorders and drug abuse, Melendez said. They are often isolated from most of their innermost feelings.

“I believe that each person has beauty within them,” she said. “Even though (the women) might have committed a crime, there is a part of them that can be strengthened with the use of music.”

Deborah Heagan, an intern in the program and a graduate student at Drexel University, highlighted the importance of offering inmates ways to channel their emotions through means that are not destructive and that will not get them into further trouble.

“Karen gives them a safe place to express themselves, a safe way to build coping skills and also a safe place to smile,” she said.

As soon as they see Melendez, the inmates become filled with child-like enthusiasm and curiosity. Because their recent life experiences have not been the most pleasant, the happiness she brings is a welcomed change of pace, Heagan said.

In the songs she composes for the biannual group concerts at the facility, Melendez always tries to incorporate the inmates’ experiences inside the prison and different themes they can all resonate with, she said. 

“Music helps them build a deeper relationship with themselves,” she said. “It really helps to open them up and gives them a better sense of their lives and life choices.”

In “Fly Away,” a song she wrote for last year’s summer concert, Melendez described the treasured moments from last spring when she and the inmates observed a family of Canadian geese across the yard of the facility.

The first verse of the melody reads, “Life in this prison can make us crazy for home and the feeling of freedom. Watching the eggs hatch into three babies connected us all to new loved ones.”

The seemingly trivial experiences transformed into testaments of renewed hope for the inmates and they are eagerly expecting the return of the geese this coming spring, Melendez said.

“The song became a symbol of life and of new life for the women,” she said.

Alyssa Gonzalez, a graduate of Immaculata University, interned with Melendez at the facility last year, and said she witnessed the profound gratitude that the women had toward the little snippets of the outside world that the music sessions granted them.

“In prison they don’t have that human touch. We were able to touch them with words and lyrics and to bring them back to the memories they used to have at home with their families,” she said. “It kind of normalized the situation.”

Therapy through music provokes and revitalizes seemingly forgotten memories for everyone. It does not only apply to this case with the inmates, Gonzalez said. 

“If there is a song that comes on from your middle school days or high school days, you start singing the lyrics and you have this instant connection,” she said. “Music has such an undeniable connection between beings.”

As she prepares for this spring’s concert at the facility, Melendez remains certain that music therapy can work for every individual who is willing to be accepting and open.

“Music is like a universal language that speaks to everyone,” she said. “No matter where you are in life, there is always music.”

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Camilo Montoya-Galvez is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in Spanish and journalism and media studies. He is a correspondent for The Daily Targum. Follow him on Twitter @camiloooom.


Camilo Montoya-Galvez

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