Amid Despair in a Venezuelan Prison, Strains of Hope From a Music Program

When Nurul Asyiqin Ahmad was taken seven months ago to her cell at the National Institute of Feminine Orientation, a prison perched on a hill in this city of slums on the outskirts of Caracas, learning how to play Beethoven was one of the last things on her mind

LOS TEQUES, Venezuela
— When Nurul Asyiqin Ahmad was taken seven months ago to her cell at
the National Institute of Feminine Orientation, a prison perched on a
hill in this city of slums on the outskirts of Caracas, learning how to
play Beethoven was one of the last things on her mind.

“The despair gripped me, like a nightmare had become my life,” said
Ms. Ahmad, 26, a shy law student from Malaysia who claims she is
innocent of charges of trying to smuggle cocaine on a flight from
Caracas to Paris. “But when the music begins, I am lifted away from
this place.” Ms. Ahmad plays violin and sings in the prison’s

In a project extending Venezuela’s renowned system
of youth orchestras to some of the country’s most hardened prisons, Ms.
Ahmad and hundreds of other prisoners are learning a repertory that
includes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and folk songs from the Venezuelan

The budding musicians include murderers, kidnappers,
thieves and, here at the women’s prison, dozens of narcomulas, or drug
mules, as small-scale drug smugglers are called. The project, which
began a year ago, is expanding this year to five prisons from three.

“This is our attempt to achieve the humanization of prison life,” said
Kleiberth Lenin Mora, 32, a lawyer who helped create the prison
orchestras, modeling them on the system that teaches tens of thousands
of poor children in Venezuela classical music. “We start with the
simple idea that performing music lifts the human being to another

Few nations have prison systems as much in need of
humanizing as Venezuela, where 498 inmates out of a total population of
21,201 were killed in 2007, according to the Venezuelan Prison
Observatory, a group that monitors prison violence.

women’s prison, the scene of gang fights and hunger strikes by inmates
in recent months, is not immune to this violence. But it is not all
bleak. Inmates have free access to the Internet. They can pay to use
cellphones. A commissary sells soft drinks and junk food.

now INOF (pronounced like the word “enough”), the acronym the prison is
known by in Spanish, has its orchestra, which most of the more than 300
women incarcerated here opt to avoid. But the 40 or so who have joined
find themselves enmeshed in an experience that was unexpected in their
lives in prison and in their lives out of prison.

“Before this
my music was reggaetón,” said Irma González, 29, a street vendor
serving a six-year sentence for robbery, referring to the fusion of
reggae, hip-hop and Latin pop that is widely popular in Venezuelan
slums. Now she plays the double bass. Her proudest moment, she said,
was when her four children, ages 14, 13, 10 and 9, recently came here
to watch her play.

“When they applauded me, I finally felt
useful in this life,” said Ms. González. Like other participants, she
hopes to reduce her term by playing in the orchestra, which judges may
consider the equivalent of hours of study.

Officials say it is
too early to tell whether the project will improve overall conditions
here and at the two prisons for men where it started, in the Andean
states of Mérida and Táchira. No stars have emerged like Gustavo Dudamel, the 27-year-old from the youth-orchestra system named as the next music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

For now, the project, which receives $3 million in funding from President Hugo Chávez’s
government and the Inter-American Development Bank, takes baby steps.
It staged its first public performance last month in Teresa Carreño
Theater in Caracas. And it insists its participants hew to a few
specific rules.

For instance, no one can threaten the
professors, many of whom are drawn from the youth-orchestra system.
Everyone must speak clearly during discussions in the daily practice
sessions. Everyone must stand up straight and take care of his or her
instrument. Smoking and chewing tobacco are not allowed.

orchestra at INOF is one of the most cosmopolitan in Venezuela. Many of
the inmates are foreigners arrested on drug-smuggling charges. Women
from Colombia, Spain, Malaysia and the Netherlands play instruments or
sing in the chorus alongside Venezuelans.

“I drain away my bad
thoughts in the orchestra,” said Joanny Aldana, 29, a viola player
serving a nine-year sentence for kidnapping and auto theft. Like some
of the other inmates, she is imprisoned here with her child, a
2-year-old daughter. Still, she despairs sometimes.

“There’s the pain of my children, of having destroyed my life, my youth,” Ms. Aldana said.

Perhaps no amount of music can make up for such loss. Perhaps that
explains the fervor with which some of the women play their instruments
or sing. It is not uncommon to see one of them shedding a tear when a
certain note is struck.

For Yusveisy Torrealba, 18, that
moment comes when the chorus sings a few words from “Caramba,” the folk
song by the Venezuelan composer Otilio Galíndez performed with the
cuatro, a four-string guitar. Ms. Torrealba was caught in April taking
cocaine on a flight to Orlando, Fla.

In her soft voice, she sang these lines for a visitor one recent afternoon:

Caramba, my love, caramba

The things we have missed

The gossip I could only hear

Between the rocks of the river.

“Caramba,” she repeated quietly, as if contemplating how much time
remained in an eight-year sentence that began last month. “The only
thing keeping me together is this music.”

Sandra La Fuente P. contributed reporting.

Source: New York Times