Local inmates learn how to play the guitar, perform annual Christmas Concert

ALEXANDRIA, La (KALB) - An unexpected venue for people to learn how to play the guitar has made all the difference in Cottonport, where inmates are learning how to play in front of a crowd at the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center in Cottonport.

Raymond Laborde Correctional Center Inmate Mark Withers and Guitar Instructor John De Chiaro | Source: KALB

Almost a dozen music students, strumming, singing and playing together in harmony, most of them for the very first time.

“Nervous, never performed before people,” said Prison Inmate Mark Withers.

This isn't your traditional music class.

Mark Withers is an inmate at the Raymond Laborde Correctional Center. He's spent the past year learning how to play the guitar.

"It's something I can look forward to every day."

A newfound passion of his that keeps him going day after day.

"The idea of just having something to look forward to that's constructive, you know something that's making me a better person,” said Withers.

For inmate Michael Gordon, music has always been important to him.

"Music, I've been in music for all my life,” said Gordon.

Music has continued to be a much-needed outlet that keeps him busy.

"It's been the world to me. It keeps me going, it keeps me doing stuff."

Michael and Mark have a rare opportunity to learn guitar thanks to a music program that began in the prison over four years ago.

"The whole idea is to try to teach them that they made a mistake but they're not a mistake,” said Guitar Instructor John De Chiaro.

Guitar Instructor John De Chiaro says it's all thanks to philanthropist Sara Simmonds.

"She asked me if I'd be willing to come down here and teach the prisoners here,” said Instructor De Chiaro.

Simmonds took a vested interest in the Cottonport inmates.

"She was the one who bought 24 guitar stands, 24 music stands and 24-foot stools."

Since then, the program has taken off and more and more inmates want to get involved.

"That's what you live for when you see somebody, I got it. I can do it."

On Tuesday night, the music students performed everything from classical selections to bluegrass during the annual Christmas concert, creating a universal language for everyone to understand.

"Everybody, everybody loves music, different kinds of music but everybody is inspired by music,” said Inmate Mark Withers.

The program is inspiring the inmates to become better people and one day succeed outside of the prison.

"I'm here to become a better person, that's what this program is doing for me. Everybody is inspired by music. Music is extremely important to me,” said Withers.

There's currently a waitlist of over 100 inmates who want to be part of the prison guitar program.

Starting in January, there will be two classes so that more inmates can learn how to play guitar.

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