Beats behind bars: Carnegie Hall musicians back at SC prison

AP News
Posted: Mar 24, 2017 2:09 PM
Beats behind bars: Carnegie Hall musicians back at SC prison

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Musicians from one of America's top concert halls have returned to South Carolina this week, making beautiful music in one of the state's most dangerous prisons in a collaborative process that helps the inmates with more than just harmony.

A chamber ensemble affiliated with Carnegie Hall has been at Lee Correctional Institution this week, working with about 40 inmates to create music of their own.

The nonprofit organization is called Decoda, which promotes music as inmate rehabilitation. For four years, Juilliard-trained cellist Claire Bryant has been bringing the group to prison for weeklong workshops of composing, training and performing.

"All of these songs are so collaborative," says Bryant, who grew up in Camden, a city about 25 miles from Lee. "People are working together, many of whom have never spoken to each other otherwise."

For up to eight hours a day, Bryant and a handful of other musicians mentor the men in small groups, exploring genres of music and the songwriting process.

In all, they'll end up with more than a dozen finished pieces for their concert on Saturday, when the group performs for other inmates, prison staff and local officials. This year's program is "Lincoln Portrait," a "Hamilton"-inspired musical about the life of Abraham Lincoln. The project is funded by Decoda donors and the Hootie and the Blowfish Foundation, a nonprofit started by the band to support charitable efforts.

An existing music program at Lee provides select, well-behaved inmates the opportunity to learn guitar, drums, bass and even the cellos and violin. During their week together, Decoda artists show the men others, such as the trumpet. A jazz singer is also accompanying the group.

Lee, a maximum-security prison with more than 1,300 inmates, holds some of South Carolina's most violent, longest-serving offenders. In the last several years, there have been two 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.

And in 2010, an officer overseeing the prison's anti-contraband efforts was shot and wounded at his home in an attack police said was orchestrated by an inmate using a cellphone smuggled into the prison.

The program's reach has already gone far beyond the razor-wire topped fences that surround Lee. Last year, 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.

The inmates have watched "Hamilton" videos, and Bryant said seeing them able to experience the same cultural excitement for the popular musical has been exciting for her as a musician who sometimes subs in on the Broadway performance.

"It's completely original," she said of the inmates' "Hamilton"-inspired work. "But some of the songs are just as good."




Kinnard can be reached at Read more of her work at