Decoda musicians Sarah Elizabeth Charles, right, and Brad Balliett, center, coach an inmate Feb. 9 at the music workshop the ensemble held at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C. Organizers and inmates said the workshop was an effort to harmony Р not only in performing music but also in learning to work together.
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Decoda musicians Sarah Elizabeth Charles, right, and Brad Balliett, center, coach an inmate Feb. 9 at the music workshop the ensemble held at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C. Organizers and inmates said the workshop was an effort to harmony Р not only in performing music but also in learning to work together.

Program brings more than music to tough prison

By Meg Kinnard

The Associated Press

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BISHOPVILLE, S.C. – One of South Carolina’s most dangerous prisons also is home to beautiful music, occasions when gate alarms and tower sirens are replaced by guitar riffs, beat box rhythms and the strains of Vivaldi.

Thanks to a partnership with a chamber ensemble affiliated with Carnegie Hall, several dozen inmates at Lee Correctional Institution put on a Feb. 13 concert whose music they’d written themselves. Organizers and inmates said the rehearsals and the performance encouraged harmony, not only in their music but also in learning to work together.

“Our mission is really to bring meaningful music-making experience to all people, regardless of their previous exposure or expertise with music,” said Claire Bryant, a Juilliard-trained cellist and member of Decoda, the chamber group.

Bryant grew up in Camden, S.C., a city about 25 miles from the prison. Since 2014, she has been returning home with Decoda, teaching Lee inmates not only to create their own music but also how to work in partnership. She and a handful of other musicians mentor the men in groups of four or five for up to eight hours a day, exploring musical genres and the songwriting process. In all, they ended up with more than a dozen finished pieces for the concert.

An existing music program at Lee provides select, well-behaved inmates the opportunity to learn guitar, drums, bass and even the cello and violin. During their week together, Decoda artists showed the men other instruments, such as the bassoon. A jazz singer also came with the group for this trip.

“Everybody is on stage, whether they’re playing a tambourine or taking guitar solos on one of the songs,” Bryant said. “They’re finding their role and their voice that they feel comfortable with. They’re participating.”

Lee, a maximum-security prison with almost 1,500 inmates, holds some of South Carolina’s most violent, longest-serving offenders and has been known for riots and brutality. In the last several years, there have been two large insurrections, including one in which an inmate overpowered a guard and used his keys to free others from their cells, leading to a six-hour standoff. Two officers were stabbed during a fight last year.

In 2010, an officer overseeing the prison’s anti-contraband effort was shot and wounded at his home in an attack police said was orchestrated by an inmate using a cellphone smuggled into the prison.

After their five-day workshop, inmates and Decoda musicians performed for other inmates, prison staff and local officials. This year’s program was titled “Seasons of Life,” inspired by Antonio Vivaldi’s classical work “The Four Seasons.”

Earlier in the week, several dozen inmates sat in Lee’s visitor room in front of a makeshift performance space. A handful of microphone stands stuck out above the closely-shorn heads of the men, clad in tan correctional uniforms, their eyes on the stage. A few prisoners at a time strode to the front, performing original songs, spoken word pieces and raps. They backed each other up, picking up guitars and sliding behind keyboards to perform musical accompaniment, often without any prior practice, creating a free-flowing jam session.

“It gives meaning to my life,” said one of them, a lifer named Randy, who only can be identified by his first name under state prison policy.

Randy had no musical experience but now practices guitar about an hour each day. He said he also has embraced other self-improvement opportunities, such as alcohol-treatment programs.

“To be able to sit on a stage with world-class musicians is something you can’t put into words,” he said.

Rob, another inmate who plays with the group, said he grew up playing rock and blues guitar and sees the program as far more than just a way to hone his skills.

“It brings a lot of guys out of their shells,” he said. “It really gives every man a voice. It basically transcends music and the way we interact with each other.”

To organizer Bryant, the musical exposure is a way to try to ensure that the men, most of whom will be released, are productive, well-balanced members of society one day.

“I think the arts have special powers that other forms of education and exploration don’t tap into,” she said. “That’s everything from problem solving, conflict resolution, a sense of accomplishment, empathy – it’s not teaching empathy, it’s more empowering the empathy that’s inside of all of us.”