LEBANON, Ohio — The UMO JA Men's Chorus from Warren Correctional Institution recently released its third album, "Extend a Hand," a 19-track recording written exclusively by the inmates.
The album, which was released a month before the World Choir Games came to Cincinnati, was recorded within the walls of the correctional institution, which meant the acoustics were far from reasonable.
The group had to compete with the purring of the air-conditioning units, the commotion of other inmates and officers, and the other constant noises that inevitably fill the prison.
"They write and sing about their personal struggles to make sense of the world," Roma said.
"The lyrics overflow with revelation, empathy and an unbroken determination to make life better, to connect to the outside world and search deep inside for meaning," Roma added.
Roma founded the prison choir 19 years ago as part musical ministry, part academic program. It was sponsored as part of the college's 45-year presence in area prisons.
This year, the choir was able to perform eight numbers entered into the gospel and spiritual categories at the World Choir Games.
But rather than perform in one of the theatres in downtown Cincinnati, the group performed before a special panel of judges inside the prison the day before the official opening ceremonies for the World Choir Games.
It marked the first time a prison choir had sung at the games and also the first time UMO JA, which means unity in Swahili, performed before a live audience.
The choir was awarded two gold medals.
But the performance was bittersweet.
Earlier this month the state of Ohio ended funding for educational programs, including the choir, in nine state prisons. Wilmington College works in three of the nine prisons.