North Carolina has sixty-six prisons, housing more than 37,000 inmates. Morganton’s Western Youth Institution is meant for the youngest of them; It houses about 430 inmates for sentences ranging from ninety days to life in prison.
It also has a flourishing music program, a rarity in the state’s prison system. It was started by Millicent Gordon thirty years ago. Now in her eighties, the Juilliard-trained pianist has found her meaning behind bars.
Only one person at Western Youth Institution has a reserved parking space, and it’s not the warden.
Smack dab outside of the front door of the towering 16 story youth prison is a small sign that reads, "Reserved for Millie Gordon." She calls herself "The Music Lady."
On windy days, Carlos Hernandez, who works in the prison, runs outside to help her in. “I mean she is
84 (86) years old,” Hernandez says. “When you meet her you’ll see what I’m talking about.”
In this towering building, full of young offenders and strict rules, everyone knows Millie. It’s evident that this little woman is a large presence.
'Treat Them All Like Grandchildren'
For the thirty years that Millie Gordon has worked as the music teacher at Western Youth Institution, she says she’s never been scared of her students.
“Some of them have done murder, some of them have done rape, just any crime you can think of, somebody there has done it,” Gordon says. “And the best way to handle them is to treat them all like grandchildren.”
Millie never asks the crimes her students committed. She says her secret to success it not judging them.
And the butterscotch candies don’t hurt, either.
“Ms. Gordon, like, when you finish a paper in her class you get butterscotch and everybody love butterscotch,” says Gordon’s 17 year old student, Kasiem Anderson. He’s in his ninth month of a sentence for breaking and entering, and he plans to be out in July. “When you get the butterscotch you have to say thank you, and you have to say it before you take two steps – she did not make this up, we made this up – you have to say it before you take two steps away from her or you do not get the candy. Because although there are a lot of disrespectful people in this facility, nobody disrespects Ms. Gordon.”
From Playing at Juilliard to Playing Behind Bars
Millie had always wanted a career in music. By her twenties she had already received one music degree and was continuing to take courses at Juilliard, when love tempted her away. She got married, had four kids, and music became a side item.
Thirty years ago her husband left her, and not long after she says she had a dream. The way she tells the story, it sort of rolls off her tongue as if by muscle memory.
“I had a dream of young men reaching through prison bars,” she says. When she woke up the next morning she remembered a call she had received two years prior from a man at the youth prison down the road, asking if she’d start a part time music program. She called him back the next morning, “and as soon I said this is Millie Gordon the man that had called me had said are you ready to start that music program and I said, ‘you mean in two years you haven’t found anyone?’ and he said ‘I guess we’ve been holding it for you.' And that’s how it began in 1983."
Music in the state’s prisons is usually limited to a choir, maybe a band. At Western Youth Institution, Millie runs the choir, teaches music, and recruits senior citizen volunteers to teach other art classes like creative writing and drawing. She teaches three classes a day, about ten people in each class. Each class lasts three months.
And everyone in Millie’s class has requested to be there.
This morning it’s a beginner’s music class. On the chalkboard above several scribbled music notes, Millie has written her own note: "You can if you think you can." She’s passing out a poem called "I am special." Amid snickers, the students take turns reading.
“That’s what’s kept me here all these thirty years,” Gordon says. “That you guys are special; that God has chosen you. If you’d stayed out of the street you might be dead now, and you know some of your friends are deceased.”
Millie rarely hears from students once they get out. She’s not allowed to contact them for a year, and by then they’ve usually gone on somewhere else.
“But I turn them over to God and say, 'he’s your child, now you know what do,'” she says.
“I never thought in my youth when I was studying for a career in music, that in my old age, in my eightieth decade, I would be doing the work that I’m doing behind bars. Thank you father.”
This story is produced through the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance (CAJA), a consortium of local media dedicated to covering the arts.