Bars behind bars: Lee Correctional Institution inmates, Carnegie Hall musicians partner to create, perform 90-minute musical

By Kayla Robins
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 4/8/18

Within walls wired with razor-sharp coils, a group of men dressed in prison tan gathered, organized, rehearsed with one goal. They would be heard.

Inmates held in their hands something they chose to help get their message out. Some items were …

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Bars behind bars: Lee Correctional Institution inmates, Carnegie Hall musicians partner to create, perform 90-minute musical

Posted

Within walls wired with razor-sharp coils, a group of men dressed in prison tan gathered, organized, rehearsed with one goal. They would be heard.

Inmates held in their hands something they chose to help get their message out. Some items were large, some small.

"Standing up for what's right / It's not a debate / It's a fight."

The scene on Thursday in the chapel at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, one of the state's most dangerous prisons with a track record that includes a six-day standoff in 2015 and fatal stabbings as recently as February, featured descriptions that could be taken out of context to insinuate such sinister actions. That was not the case.

Inmates involved in Decoda, a nonprofit chamber ensemble that, for six years now, has brought Carnegie Hall musicians to the maximum-security prison for male offenders often sentenced to decades of incarceration for violent crimes, used the large and small items - guitars, a drum set, a trumpet, a saxophone, microphones - to perform "Lincoln Portrait: Part 2." The men wrote lyrics, melodies, instrumentals and skit scripts for the 90-minute show modeled after the Broadway hit "Hamilton: An American Musical."

"It's not easy to put together a 90-minute musical performance," Juilliard-trained cellist Claire Bryant said. "And it's not usual."

Led by Bryant, Decoda spends a week with inmates in the BLIC (Better Living Incentive Community) in workshops and rehearsals, culminating in the 19-song performance that spans the life and death of the 16th president.

BLIC opened after a riot at the prison in 2012 for inmates with a clean record while imprisoned. Accepted applicants live in a separate dorm, receive more lax security and can take classes.

"It's a good outlet for the folks that are incarcerated. It gives them something to look forward to," said Bryan Stirling, director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, of Decoda. "And it's a reward for being on good behavior because if you have any discipline or anything like that, you would not be able to participate in this program."

The men involved are not the ones who took the guards hostage. They're not the ones who murdered fellow inmates during fights. They're the ones who spent a year researching the history of Lincoln, from his eternal love for Mary Todd Lincoln (song No. 5) to the adversarial members of his cabinet (song No. 9) to the sudden death of his young son, Willie (song No. 10).

"Let it rain, rain on me / Lord let this rain wash this pain from me."

"I was sitting there wondering where they got those lyrics from, and they explained they wrote them themselves. They match them to the music. They memorize it. It's a lot of talent," Stirling said.

The show was performed in front of other BLIC inmates, prison staff, visiting family members and the media, all of whom got a sense of prison by separating themselves from cell phones, wallets and any communication to the outside while the inmates got a sense of the outside by attending the show and using musical instruments, devices and situations not afforded to just any of the more than 1,500 men incarcerated there.

"Security is also important," Stirling said, "but programming can keep an institution safe."

He said he hopes the positive reinforcement the program gives inmates is a "glimmer that if they do the right things that when they get out, they will have a future and they won't come back to the Department of Corrections."

The connection to life on the other side of the bars, the life where you can open your own door, is in the music for the 25-year-old inmate who played the central character - in asking for help from friends with a report on Lincoln, he introduced each number with a short skit.

"I always wanted to be an actor," he said.

He said he wrote a play that was performed while he was at Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia about a man who robbed a bank when his mother fell ill but that it was "mind-blowing to work with the ensemble from Carnegie Hall. They're on a major scale."

"I remember being 4 or 5 years old, and my mother got me and my brother rehearsing for talent shows," he said.

Learning history through music, through writing lyrics for rock songs and rap ballads, helped him.

"If I was a school principal, I would use music for the kids to get them to learn because I learned so much about Lincoln it's ridiculous," he said.

"One day, I'm gonna be somebody / One day, I'm gonna make a change / One day, I'm gonna be somebody / One day, the world's gonna know my name."

"Music here actually gives me the opportunity to escape from prison. These couple hours, matter fact this whole week working on the Lincoln project, I was not in prison," he said. "All I had time to do was work on this, take a shower and lay down. So, it's really an escape. So, it's tranquility for me here."