Reviews | Why a visit to Lee Correctional Facility gave me hope

BISHOPVILLE, South Carolina — Cellist Claire Bryant is what we mortals would call a prodigy. In recent years, she’s also become a miracle worker, bringing her musical talents to some of America’s underserved people — men incarcerated at Lee Correctional Institution, South Carolina’s largest maximum-security prison. – and transforming them into refined musicians and performers. .

As a member of a musical ensemble created by Carnegie Hall called Decoda, she and her colleagues work with inmates here to compose and perform their own music. As a witness to the program, which I have written about before, I can attest to the transformative power of music — for inmates, the public, and professional musicians themselves.

Until last Friday, Bryant had been unable to visit Lee since the arrival of the coronavirus in early 2020. The site of a mass riot in 2018 that left seven people dead and scores more injured, the vast Lee’s men’s dorm complex housing over a 1,000 convicted felons can be daunting to the uninitiated. You can’t walk through the maze of prison hallways, through slamming electronic doors, without a reluctant sense of foreboding.

But inside the prison chapel, which doubles as the program’s concert hall, a different vibe reigned. Bryant and violinist Jennifer Curtis recently joined several of Lee’s inmate-musicians, alternating performances before an audience of about 75 inmates, all of whom attend one of Lee’s rehabilitation programs. Playing keyboards, guitars, drums and maracas, the men performed three songs they had composed during the pandemic, while Bryant and Curtis performed tracks from Bryant’s new album, “Whole Heart.”

The inmates are remarkable; they have committed no disciplinary offenses during their sentence and thus enjoy greater freedoms, including mobility and unlocked cells. Bryant, who grew up in nearby Camden and created the program eight years ago, told the rally that she dedicated her album to three men from the program who died of covid and that their creative courage had inspired and ” changed the way I play in the outside world. »

Over the past eight years, the program has produced 128 original songs, including an ambitious work of almost lyrical scope called “Lincoln Portrait” – a collection of deeply researched songs highlighting Abraham Lincoln’s speeches and the Lincoln-Douglas debates. . Inspired by the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” the inmate-songwriters put together an outlandish rap performed with haunting vocals by New York jazz artist Sarah Elizabeth Charles.

Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections and self-proclaimed historian, supports this effort. “I learned more about the Lincoln-Douglas debates from the inmates than from any book or course,” he told me.

Formerly South Carolina Assistant Attorney General and then-Governor’s Chief of Staff. Nikki Haley, Stirling took over the department in 2013 at the request of her boss. Haley, apparently, knew what she was doing. This year, Stirling was honored by the Correctional Leaders Association for turning the agency around, especially since the riot.

One of his first acts as warden was to drive to the downtown Columbia bus station where freshly released prisoners were dropped off on the first of every month. He was appalled to see former inmates getting off the Lee bus still wearing their prison attire, minus the distinctive black leg band. Most had no idea where they were going to sleep that night and had no money or job prospects. The inhumanity of the process set him on fire.

Since then, Stirling has reduced the prison population by around 30% and boasts the lowest recidivism rate in the country at around 20%. He nearly doubled the officers’ starting salary to $50,000. He instituted job training and interview skills programs and, in direct response to the riots that occurred under his watch, established the Academy of Hope, where state prison inmates, including many ex-gang members will learn communications and other skills to help them stem the violence.

“Stirling realized he couldn’t reach the prisoners and had to do something completely different,” says DOC communications director Chrysti Shain. Different paid off.

After inmates graduate from the Academy of Hope, they return to prisons as peacemakers. At Lee, they visit all the cellblocks, called “dormitories,” daily to “check the temperature,” as they say, and to help other inmates resolve their differences peacefully. Unsurprisingly, it is easier for inmates to seek advice from fellow inmates than from state agents. “They respect us,” one of the men, 40, told me. “A lot of them grew up in prison. I’ve been here for 23 years.

Two years ago, an academy-trained inmate stepped in and saved the life of a prison lieutenant who was being stabbed by an inmate. “It wouldn’t have happened a million years before the academy,” Shain says.

Between the music and the mannerisms, South Carolina’s worst offenders have a better chance of reentering civil society and staying out of prison. And society has a much better chance of staying safe.

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