Jail Songbird: Correctional Officer Sings To Inmates

HOUMA, LA (AP) — Sgt. Martha Skidmore, a 10-year Terrebonne Parish correctional officer, has been belting out tunes since she was 4.

         As a product of a musical family — Skidmore's mother was a gospel singer — one of Skidmore's earliest memories was performing the gospel classic "I'm Going Through" in front of a packed church crowd while standing on top of a chair. She has never undergone any sort of formal training.

         "I remember singing, but not hearing anything," Skidmore said of the intense concentration that overtook her in the moment. "When they took me off the chair and I was walking down the hall, everyone was looking at me with an astonished expression on their face."

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         Now in her early 50s, Skidmore still stuns audiences at church but has found a new and unconventional stage from which she can share her musical gifts: the parish jail in Ashland.

         As the unofficial jail songbird, Skidmore sings to inmates upon request and helps console them during troubled times, she said.

         Skidmore chooses gospel songs, such as "Let Jesus Fix It For You," that she says will help uplift the inmates' spirits and overcome their feelings of loneliness.

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         "I walk through that jailhouse, everyday, all day, and all they hear is singing," Skidmore said. "They say, 'Here comes Ms. Martha.'"

         "I sing for them because I know they need to hear, and they love it," she said, adding that she once received up to 100 inmate request forms for her to sing. "They'll say, 'Ms. Martha, please sing us something. Can you sing a little verse for us before we go to court?'"

         Skidmore has found that women inmates often need the greatest care and attention. During one of her late night shifts, Skidmore remembers that some of her female charges could not get to sleep, so she sang them a lullaby through a microphone from the control pod.

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         "Some of them miss their kids; some of them miss being home," Skidmore said. "So I would try to ease that a little bit by singing to them. The next thing you know, all you hear was snoring. I went to check on them, and sure enough, they were asleep."

         Skidmore recalls one particular woman doing time for drugs in the early 1990s who asked her to sing at her baptism once she got out of prison. The woman, she said, now owns her own business and lives in Lockport with her family.

         "She would ask me to write down some scriptures, so I brought that to her," Skidmore said of their initial interactions at the jail. "She found Christ in there."

         "I didn't know she had gotten released, but somehow she'd gotten my number. One day, she came by my house and said, 'I need you to sing at my baptism. I turned my life completely around because of you,'" Skidmore said.

         It's the combination of God and music, Skidmore said, that also helped her survive the darkest period of her life: when her 25-year old son Courtney "Buff" Williams was murdered in his home by armed gunmen in 2008. The killers have never been found.

         "You have to pray and turn it over to God and leave it there. That's the only thing that's gonna get you through this," Skidmore said.

         "Let Him work it out. 'Cause that's a problem that's too big for me to solve. And I told Him, 'I can't deal with this. I need you to take this from me.' And He took it."

         Singing about her pain has also helped her overcome the sense of utter devastation that would threaten to overwhelm her whenever she found herself alone, Skidmore said.

         "You either want to live on or you're going to let it eat you up like cancer," she said of the two fates that befall grieving mothers who lose their children.

         "I chose to live on because I had other family to take care of. But it takes time to get there. It's not an overnight situation," she said, adding it took her about a year to come to terms with her son's death.

         But until her son's killers are found, Skidmore said she will never stop replaying that tragic moment when she got the fateful phone call about her son.

         "I was standing right in that hallway when it happened," she said, gesturing to the apartment corridor behind her. "I will never move from that place. I'm stuck at that place."

         In the meantime, Skidmore wants to let kids know that getting involved in drugs early on, just like her son did, is not worth it. She plans to keep sharing her story through song and teaching kids about the dangers of drugs at the annual high school prison tours the Sheriff's Office has initiated.

         "If I can help one kid, if I can help one mother to not go through what I went through, then that's my inspiration to keep doing what I'm doing," she said.

         – by AP/ Reporter Maki Somosot with The Courier

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