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Some of SC's most notorious convicts are studying music in maximum-security prison

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At Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville on April 5, an inmate smiles while playing the violin during a workshop organized by the music collective Decoda, which is affiliated with Carnegie Hall. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

BISHOPVILLE — In the chapel, where the men were rehearsing their songs, the orange jumpsuits seemed jarringly out of place. They reminded any visitor that this was a room full of felons. Some of them had done terrible things.

But here, at Lee Correctional Institution, South Carolina’s largest maximum-security prison, these 37 men were singing of love and loneliness, family and regret.

A notorious murderer played an open-bodied electric guitar with the skill of a professional. Others clearly had mastered their instruments before getting locked up. But most had learned to play and sing in jail.

These men are residents of the “character-based unit,” a section of the prison meant for those who demonstrate nonviolence and an interest in cooperation and rehabilitation. Inmates must apply to win one of 256 beds.

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Inmates at Lee Correctional Institution rehearse for a concert at the end of a week-long workshop at the maximum-security prison led by the music collective Decoda. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

If they succeed, they get to participate in prison programs like this one.

Leading the rehearsal was Claire Bryant and her colleagues of the nonprofit Decoda, a music collective affiliated with Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Bryant, a native of Camden, has brought her musical troupe to Lee Correctional Institution six times to run these “Music for Transformation” workshops. Each year, they spend a week with inmates helping them write songs. Typically, a theme is set forth, meant to inspire the men to write their lyrics (this time it was “Letters from Lee”).

The professional players then make string, brass and woodwind arrangements to accompany some of the songs. After a couple days of rehearsals, the prisoners present a concert in the chapel. About half the patrons are prison residents and half are guests from outside the tall razor-wire fences.

To say they look forward to this week of music-making is an understatement. When Bryant and the other Decoda musicians recently arrived for rehearsal, the men burst into applause and shouted warm greetings.

The music programming at Lee is part of the Department of Corrections’ rehabilitation efforts.

“It gives the guys a constructive outlet and (helps them use their) energy in a positive way and learn to work together,” one of the inmates said.

Working toward reform

But make no mistake, these are among the state’s most notorious convicts, many have served decades behind bars, and some at Lee Correctional Institution will never be free again. This was the site of a deadly, seven-hour-long, gang-related riot on April 15 last year that resulted in seven deaths by stabbing and left 22 more hospitalized with serious injuries.

Advocates of prison reform argue that severely punitive conditions, mistreatment and lack of adequate oversight contributed to conditions that led to the riot. Prison officials point to new regulations on contraband, including cellphones, a decline in the overall prison population and programs such as those available in the character-based unit as examples of success.

One prisoner questioned whether rehabilitation is anything but an empty promise if it leads to no material improvements in the lives of these men. Second chances are few and far between, he said. Years ago, he said, inmates had a better chance at getting parole, benefited from furlough opportunities and participated in more rehabilitation programs. The Corrections Department does not permit media to publish inmates’ names or show their faces in photographs or video.

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Nathan Schram, a violist with the music collective Decoda, helped organize the April workshop for inmates of Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Chrysti Shain, the department’s director of communications, said the numbers tell a different story. The total population at Lee has declined in the past year from around 1,500 to about 1,200, continuing an overall trend that started in 2010, when South Carolina’s total prison population was 24,000. Today it’s closer to 19,000, according to department records.

Twenty years ago, the department has no character-based units or programming, Shain said. Today, qualifying inmates can participate in programs devoted to music, dog grooming, continuing education, vocational training and more. Thanks to a partnership with the University of South Carolina, musically inclined prisoners can study theory and composition. Instruments are not restricted to the chapel; inmates can bring them to their dormitories and practice.

One facility is devoted to prisoner re-entry, training inmates how to navigate the world outside, Shain said. In 2002, the department started the “Going Home Serious and Violent Offender Re-entry Initiative,” a grant-funded 12-month program for young, high-risk prisoners that require community supervision after incarceration.

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Inmates practice their guitar parts during a music workshop on April 5, 2019, at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

And in recent weeks, Lee introduced a new leadership academy and a “Restoring Promise” initiative developed by the New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice, which works to improve living and working conditions inside prisons and address the problem of mass incarceration.

'These guys are broken'

The value of this kind of programming inside Lee is evident. One inmate called the week-long “Music for Transformation” workshop a privilege that helped the men change the way they approach life. Another said he appreciated the significance of incentives and rewards within the institution. The men must earn a spot in the character-based unit, which in turn grants them access to the music programs, he noted, adding that incentives of some kind ought to be available to every offender at the prison, even the most hardened.

“We need more programs to teach the psychological things they haven’t been taught,” one said. “These guys are broken.”

More than 30 musicians are associated with Decoda, and four of them — cellist and Music for Transformation director Claire Bryant, bassoonist Brad Balliett, violist Nathan Schram and French horn player Laura Weiner — returned to Bishopville for the workshop. They were joined by colleagues from the Attacca Quartet.

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Cellist Claire Bryant with the music collective Decoda has led week-long workshops at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville for the past six years. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

All of the Decoda musicians are alumni of Carnegie Hall’s two-year fellowship program called “Ensemble Connect,” which prepares young artists “for careers that combine musical excellence with teaching, community engagement, advocacy, entrepreneurship and leadership.” The team also has worked with inmates at another maximum-security prison: Sing Sing in New York State.

Kenneth Nelsen, warden of Lee Correctional Institution, said the music programming and other initiatives are part of a deliberate effort to change the culture inside the prison, helping inmates find productive and rewarding means of expression. This undertaking gained renewed urgency in the wake of last year’s violence, he said.

“It gives them, No. 1, something to do, and, No. 2, everybody likes music,” Nelsen said. “They do several concerts a year, put on different shows; it’s taken very seriously.”

He said some thought the administrators who started the music program several years ago were crazy, but it’s proved to be helpful to both inmates and staff.

“It gives them a way to express themselves with their music,” he said. At any given moment in the unit someone is playing his instrument. “It’s a soothing effect. I’m knocking on wood right now, but we have very few issues down there. This teaches them something. If nothing else, when they go back into society, they’ll have an appreciation for music, for concerts.” Some might even join a band, he added. “It goes to show that just because they’re inmates and incarcerated, that doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to contribute to society.”

'You are my North Star'

At the rehearsal on Friday, Bryant kept the men focused and energized, though that didn’t appear to be a very difficult task. She directed the run-throughs and made a few suggestions about song structure and string accompaniments. Schram also chimed in with some musical ideas.

The band members took their positions at the front of the chapel and about 30 other men assembled on either side. They worked through a catchy, sentimental original tune called “True North," singing the verses and choruses, deciding where to put the bridge section. The lead singer-songwriter offered his plaintive vocals: “Looking for true north, searching for answers in the night.”

Next came a plaintive duet.

“Selfless love is the love of a mother, selfless love is the love of one another,” the inmates crooned.

Then the band practiced a reggae-infused number.

“I thought that I would be with you forever,” the prisoner sang. “I thought that this love would last forever, but nothing lasts forever.”

One of the men, a gifted guitar player, runs the year-round music program at Lee. He gives private lessons and leads classes where guitar, bass and keyboards are taught. There’s also a hip-hop workshop in which inmates can find poetic expression for their feelings.

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An inmate tunes a violin at the music workshop on April 5. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

The music programming is rehabilitative “because it gives the guys a constructive outlet and (helps them spend) their energy in a positive way and learn to work together,” he said.

The instruments and amplifiers have been donated by churches and other organizations, he said.

For the performance on Saturday, about 100 showed up, some residents, some visitors, according to Bryant. The concert went well.

“Everything just kind of fell into place, as it always seems to do,” she said.

The man who wrote “True North” said the song honored his father who, well into his 90s, attended the concert.

“You could just tell he had been waiting to sing this song for his dad for a long time,” Bryant said.

The tune featured an extended bridge, “Searching, searching, searching,” and spirited chorus, sung by all the men. It closed the concert.

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A Lee Correctional Institution inmate writes down lyrics to a song during the April music workshop on Friday, April 5, 2019, in Bishopville. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

“My dearest dad, I need to tell you I know I have let you down,” the inmate sang, strumming his acoustic guitar. “Still you stay right by my side. You need to know you are my hero, you are the man I hope to be, yes, you are my North Star.”

The experience of working with these prisoners has offered Bryant and her colleagues glimpses into the ways the men cope with incarceration, and the feelings that accumulate within them, she said.

“There’s no denying that many of them are in (jail) for terrible acts,” she said. But it’s also evident that they are trying to be better people. “They work hard to maintain their good standing so they can have these opportunities.”

Nelsen was there, sitting in the front row, along with Department of Corrections Director Bryan Sterling and other prison officials.

The warden said he was impressed by the professional results of the week-long workshop.

“One family member made a comment at end that this was just amazing,” he recalled. “‘Out on the street, I would have paid $100 to see an event like this.’”

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Inmates fist bump after rehearsal led by the music collective Decoda, an affiliate of Carnegie Hall, which conducts music outreach programs at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville and at Sing Sing prison in New York. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.