COLUMBIA, S.C. — Musicians from one of America’s top concert halls have returned to South Carolina to make melodies in one of the state’s most dangerous prisons, performing a concert that’s the culmination of a week’s worth of workshops and practices behind bars.
On Thursday, a chamber ensemble affiliated with Carnegie Hall is set to put on a performance it’s been working on with inmates this week at Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison about 55 miles (90 km) from Columbia. As they did last year, the professional and inmate musicians are teaming up for a performance of pieces for a musical about the life of Abraham Lincoln inspired by the Broadway hit “Hamilton: An American Musical.”
This is the sixth year that the nonprofit called Decoda has performed with inmates at Lee. Led by Juilliard-trained cellist Claire Bryant, the group promotes music as inmate rehabilitation and comes to Lee for a week of workshops of composing, training and performing.
“Our work at Lee Correctional this week has been nothing short of incredible,” Bryant, who is a substitute musician for “Hamilton” on Broadway, told The Associated Press. “The most inspiring part of this work is observing and supporting the process of fifty incarcerated men coming together to collaborate as they take a seedling of a single song and through their dedication and focus unveil a full-length Broadway-style musical.”
An existing music program at Lee provides select, well-behaved inmates the opportunity to learn instruments including guitar, drums and bass. During their week together, Decoda artists show the men others, such as the trumpet.
For up to eight hours a day, Bryant and several other Decoda musicians mentor the men in small groups, exploring genres of music and the songwriting process. Ultimately, they’ll end up with multiple finished pieces for Thursday’s concert, which will be performed at Lee in front of other inmates, prison staff and local and state officials.
The program’s reach has already gone far beyond the razor-wire topped fences that surround Lee. In 2016, three musicians from Decoda traveled to the White House, where they performed a piece called “Welcome to my World,” written by that year’s prison workshop participants. Audience members for the performance included U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Lee, a maximum-security prison with more than 1,500 inmates, holds some of South Carolina’s most violent, longest-serving offenders. In recent years, there have been several large insurrections, including one in which an inmate overpowered a guard and used his keys to free others from their cells in a six-hour standoff. Two officers were stabbed during a fight in 2015.
During its year at Lee, Decoda has been developing musical relationships with some of the inmates and working on a variety of different projects. This year, Bryant, a South Carolina native, added a side venture on to her return to her native state, partnering with the South Carolina Arts Commission for a songwriting project with teens from Denmark-Olar High School. The week before their return to Lee, Bryant and three other Decoda artists put together a workshop for 20 Denmark-Olar students, writing new songs and performing their works for the public last week.
“Both projects have been powerful, using music as a vehicle to empower the voices of youth and the incarcerated,” Bryant said. “These programs are centered around the act of creating music in collaborative settings, helping to build the skills necessary to be productive members of our communities.”