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Decoda performs at Lee Correctional Institution

Posted: January 30, 2014 4:30 p.m.
Updated: January 31, 2014 5:00 a.m.

The New York-based chamber music ensemble Decoda ended its week-long Camden and Kershaw County residency with a visit to Lee Correctional Institution (LCI) in neighboring Lee County. Claire Bryant, originally of Camden and cellist for Decoda, said she knew she wanted to perform within the prison because "Decoda has done work with a correctional facility in New York and our thought was to do that same thing here in South Carolina, in this community," she said.

Thanks to the efforts of LCI staff, especially former LCI Director Judge William Byars, current LCI Director Bryan Sterling, former LCI Director of Programming John Carmichael and current LCI Director of Programming Michael McCall, Decoda was allotted time on Saturday to tour the facility, speak with inmates about current programming and initiatives and perform an interactive concert for inmates and staff members.

The tour was led by inmates and went through a "character dorm" within LCI known as the Better Living Incentive Community (BLIC). During the tour, inmates spoke about the BLIC’s goals, expressing that the community presents "the opportunity to help people so that when they leave they don’t come back."

According to a document provided by the inmates, BLIC’s mission statement is "an attempt to offset the recidivism problem in South Carolina. BLIC’s sole mission is to equip men educationally and pro-socially while elevating the man’s character spiritually so he can start the transition of ‘living as a free man’ now.

‘This is accomplished through individual accountability, peer to peer assessment and a diverse amount of programs. BLIC has a goal to reach the entire prison population through its outreach program. With devotion and through dedication, LCI will become a model prison through BLIC."

BLIC offers various classes and programming to achieve this goal. The inmates spoke about some of the classes, along with music and language lessons, there are anger management, emotional navigation, parenting and budgeting classes.

"We want to change ourselves from a negative perspective to a positive one," an inmate stated. "We want it to be known in here that being locked up is not the end. We want guys to utilize their talents and to teach each other. We want to create the possibility for an alternative, for a better life."

An especially poignant moment occurred at the end of the tour when a few selected inmates performed a song they had written especially for Decoda’s visit. "We haven’t named the song yet," an inmate stated. "This is only 24 hours old."

Bryant described the reward she personally felt from touring the BLIC unit at LCI, stating "it’s so valuable to see the community and what they’ve built at BLIC. Communication is a real value there."

Communications Director Clark Newsom emphasized that there are a lot of positive things going on within the prison. "Our director wants to make folks productive again," he said.

Newsom said that though the character dorm program is faith-based, participants don’t have to be religious. "They have to want to follow rules and better themselves," Newsom said. "The program provides an incentive for inmates in other dorms to better themselves, also. They know that South Carolina has high recidivism rates and they are hoping the character dorms offer a better alternative."

After a particularly stunning performance by Decoda, the ensemble asked for responses from the audience on what their reactions were to the music. Some of the statements made included: "I didn’t know what to expect, but now I feel this as a part of my meditation;" "There were no words, but the music was very special;" "It was an emotional rhapsody;" "It’s the best I’ve heard. It touched my spirit;" and "I loved it."

Describing her feelings toward the performance, Bryant said, "It was a really powerful experience for me and for the other musicians. It was really humbling and meaningful because it is a facility within this community. I was blown away by the level of respect the men have for each other, for us and for the staff. The respect was palpable; it’s the core value in that community. It was one of the best audiences we’ve had.

"There was a need to release energy, to transport them to a better mental place. I could feel they were moved by the music. It hit them at their core. Hearing their comments was so meaningful and that sort of experience -- it drives home the reason why we play music. Music has the power to touch souls and heal in some small way. All those men signed up to be there. There was not an empty seat."

Bryant explained that Decoda very carefully considers and plans the selections of music included in a concert. "We talk about always making music that’s relevant to the audience," she said. "We’re thinking about who our audience is and how we can create a pathway into the music that’s accessible and meaningful for them. We thought about the themes of darkness and light and of tension and release for this concert."

Bryant added, "The inmates are people too and they deserve the chance to reform their lives. Music teaches communication, collaboration, compromise, courage and confidence. Our work at Sing Sing (correctional institution) has affected us personally and artistically. It’s gotten us back to our roots. We felt so privileged that they invited us into their home, into what they’ve built and created, to see how they live in their society and share with each other."

Bryant explained that Decoda’s residency is funded by two grants -- one from Chamber Music of America and the second from the Hootie and the Blowfish Foundation. She said that in April, Decoda will return to LCI to conduct "an intensive 6 day series of workshops, where the ensemble members are writing music alongside the men. We have done these types of projects before in New York with shelters, hospitals, high schools and the juvenile justice system.

"We’ve discovered you don’t have to have musical experience to create songs, you just pull from your own life experiences. Our hope is to pass on the skills to the leaders and musicians there so they’ll have the tools to teach others songs or pieces, so that when we’re gone they can still be creating."

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