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Opinion Why a visit to a maximum-security South Carolina prison gave me hope

Violinist Jennifer Curtis and cellist Claire Bryant perform at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C. (Provided by South Carolina Department of Corrections)

BISHOPVILLE, S.C. — Cellist Claire Bryant is what we lesser mortals would call a prodigy. In recent years, she has also become a miracle worker, taking her musical talents to some of the least served people in America — incarcerated men at the Lee Correctional Institution, South Carolina’s largest maximum-security prison — and transforming them into polished musicians and performers.

As members of a Carnegie Hall-spawned musical ensemble called Decoda, she and her colleagues work with inmates here to compose and perform their own music. As a witness to the program, about which I’ve written before, I can attest to the transformative power of music — for inmates, audiences and professional musicians themselves.

Until last Friday, Bryant had not been able to visit Lee since the arrival of the coronavirus in early 2020. The site of a mass riot in 2018 that left seven dead and many others wounded, Lee’s vast complex of all-male dorms housing more than 1,000 convicted criminals can be daunting to the uninitiated. You can’t walk the prison’s maze of corridors, through slamming electronic doors, without a grudging sense of trepidation.

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

The inmates are standouts; they’ve committed no disciplinary infractions during their sentences 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 gathering that she had dedicated her album to three men from the program who had died of covid and that their creative courage had inspired and “changed the way I perform in the outside world.”

In the past eight years, the program has produced 128 original songs, including an ambitious work of almost operatic 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-composers put together a rap extravaganza performed with haunting vocals by visiting New York jazz artist Sarah Elizabeth Charles.

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

Previously a South Carolina deputy attorney general and chief of staff to then-Gov. Nikki Haley, Stirling took over the department in 2013 at his boss’s behest. 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 director was to visit the bus station in downtown Columbia where just-released prisoners were dropped off the first of each month. He was appalled to see former inmates stepping down from the Lee bus still wearing their prison garb, minus the distinctive black leg stripe. Most had no idea where they were going to sleep that night and had no money and no job prospects. The inhumanity of the process put a fire in his belly.

Since then, Stirling has decreased the prison population by about 30 percent and can boast the lowest recidivism rate in the country, at about 20 percent. He has almost doubled officers’ starting salaries to $50,000. He has instituted programs in job training and interview techniques and, in direct response to the riots that occurred under his watch, created the Academy of Hope, where inmates from prisons around the state, many of them former gang members, go to learn communications and other skills to help them stanch the violence.

“Stirling realized he couldn’t reach the prisoners and needed to do something completely different,” says DOC Director of Communications Chrysti Shain. Different has paid off.

Once inmates graduate from the Academy of Hope, they return to prisons as peacemakers. At Lee, they daily visit all cellblocks, called “dorms,” to “check the temperature,” as one put it, and to help fellow inmates resolve differences peacefully. Not surprisingly, it’s easier for inmates to take advice from fellow inmates than from state officers. “They respect us,” one of the men, age 40, told me. “A lot of them grew up in prison. I’ve been here 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. “That wouldn’t have happened in a million years before the academy,” says Shain.

Between music and manners, South Carolina’s worst offenders stand a better chance of reentering civil society and staying out of prison. And society stands a much better chance of staying safe.