BISHOPVILLE -- Lee Correctional Institution, South Carolina’s largest maximum-security prison, gets plenty of bad press -- from a riot and a lockdown in February to drone-delivered contraband a few days ago.
But within the walls of this all-male complex, something rare and beautiful is also happening.
On a recent serendipitous visit to the prison with a friend, renowned cellist Claire Bryant, and a group of her fellow New York musicians, I was privileged to witness the transformative power of music scored with human kindness.
Claire, whom I’ve known since she was a kid, is the poster child for giving back. Each year, she brings her enormous talent, her gargantuan heart and several artists -- the Carnegie Hall affiliate ensemble “Decoda” -- to forgotten places and people.
Few are more forgotten than the men at Lee, many of whom have committed violent crimes, many of them sentenced to life imprisonment. But a life behind bars needn’t mean the end of one’s humanity.
For four half-days and one full day of rehearsal, the musicians worked with inmates writing original music which was then performed in a concert for fellow inmates, prison staff and a half-dozen invited civilians, including me.
If I knew then what I know now/I’d never stop believing/That I can do anything/I can change/I can be transformed.
So goes the chorus to one of the songs written by Keith, Don and DX in collaboration with Decoda. The theme of the five-day project was, you may have guessed, transformation, which is an equally apt word to describe this particular group of 30, all part of a special group of 256 within the prison (total population 1,700).
They call themselves BLIC, for Better Living Incentive Community. Created after a riot in 2012, BLIC members are selected based on good behavior and housed in a separate dorm. As an inmate described it to me: “He wanted us to think as free men rather than as incarcerated men without hope.” (“He” refers to BLIC creator Michael McCall, deputy director of the South Carolina Department of Corrections.)
Each member agrees contractually to the rules of engagement. My favorite: Anyone standing 8 feet away shouldn’t be able to hear your conversation. Talk about music to mine ears.
The program is peer-driven, faith-based -- and ought to be replicated in every prison. It works. In the past two years, there have been no infractions among BLIC members. This means, among other things, inmates leave their cell doors open, their lockers unlocked and, significantly, they don’t have to worry about being stabbed -- a near-daily occurrence elsewhere in the prison, inmates told me.
Such comity also means the musicians -- and I during rehearsals -- felt comfortable among inmates with only a single guard in sight. Indeed, there was great camaraderie and affection between the two groups.
If you doubt that within every person resides a divine spark, listening to prisoners express their joys and sorrows -- ever-luminous even in this dark place -- may cause you to reconsider.
The 19 songs created and performed came from deep places many had never explored before. With a few notable exceptions, many had no prior musical experience. Don, a quiet, self-contained 24-year-old serving his sixth year, began learning to play guitar three years ago. He learned from Rob -- BLIC’s maestro -- whose father taught him to play at 10. Rob now runs a music program for 70 inmates.
“With music,” says Rob, “I can travel all over the world without leaving my cell.”
The concert brought jubilation and left few dry eyes. A young man in his 20s rapped his heart out in homage to his grandmother, who suffered Alzheimer’s while he was away chasing dreams. She didn’t remember him upon his return 10 years later -- until, tending a boyhood vow, he fed and tucked her in bed the way she used to do him.
Another performed a heartbreaking memoriam to his little girl who had died, a song he tearfully testified had finally brought him peace.
Unlike inmates who claim they’re innocent, each man I spoke to accepted full responsibility for the actions which put him behind bars. All insisted they had changed.
From the outside, it’s easy to snicker at that sentence -- and perhaps there was a con artist or two in the bunch -- but there was something transcendently good at Lee Correctional on that Sunday afternoon.
The final chorus that brought all to their feet tells the rest of the story:
Look at me now/I’m not who I once was/The trials in my life/Have come to make me strong/So look at me now.