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Classical musician releases debut album in prison

Cellist Claire Bryant performs for prisoners at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville as she releases her first new solo album entitled, "Whole Heart". She says it was inspired by the men who she teaches in a yearly music writing workshop. September 9, 2022.
Victoria Hansen
SC Public Radio
Cellist Claire Bryant performs for prisoners at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville as she releases her first solo album entitled, "Whole Heart". Bryant says it was inspired by the men she teaches in a yearly, music workshop. September 9, 2022.

Claire Bryant warms up her cello in a chapel. She draws a bow across its belly and plucks the strings. Her face becomes expressive, her breath audible, and a dangling wisp of hair dances about her forehead as she exhales.

The cello, it seems, is playing Bryant too.

“Just a little, light tune for a Friday morning,” she laughs.

Claire Bryant plays cello as part of an album debut at Lee Correctional
Victoria Hansen
SC Public Radio
Claire Bryant plays cello in a prison chapel as part of an album debut at Lee Correctional Institution.

The mood in the chapel is anything but light. Bryant’s audience is late.

There are whispers a head count may be off, a daunting thought at the Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville where the nation’s deadliest prison riot in decades erupted four years ago.

But Bryant isn’t worried. The cellist, who regularly performs at Carnegie Hall, is eager to release her debut, solo album behind prison walls.

“Yeah, this is an important place for me.”

The South Carolina native began a workshop here in 2014, bringing the mission of a group she cofounded in New York, Decoda, home. Its members strive to connect people and create compassion through music.

Inmates at Lee, who earn the privilege through good behavior, learn to read, write and play music in the yearly workshop called “Music for Transformation”. They’ve performed at the White House and produced more than 120 songs.

“They have lots of talents,” says Bryant. “They have lots of hopes and dreams like we do.”

They also suffer loss. Three fellow music students died during the pandemic. There hasn’t been a workshop here since.

But on this day, dozens of prisoners in orange jumpsuits finally make their way through prison doors excited about the concert. Many smile, as their lock eyes with their mentor, Bryant.

She says her new album entitled “Whole Heart” was inspired by the students. She shares her debut stage with them as an inmate named King, we’ve agreed to use first names only, introduces the song, "Thirst".

“Thirst”. “Thirst, a verb as in I thirst, she’s thirsting, we thirst. Thirst,” recites King.

What do people thirst for? For Bryant, it's bravery, freedom from self-doubt.

“I really didn’t know if people would even want to hear my voice,” says Bryant. “And I think that’s how people must feel who are incarcerated.”

Bryant gives voice to people rarely heard; those who’ve committed serious crimes, many behind bars for life. She believes music can heal.

“Music taps, I think, a part of us that words can’t reach.”

Music students at Lee Correctional play a song they wrote
Victoria Hansen
SC Public Radio
Prisoners learning to write music play a song they wrote at Lee Correctional. September 9, 2022

After Bryant plays, several inmates perform. Rob is on guitar.

“Here, it’s really easy in this environment to separate for a lot of reasons,” says Rob. “But music gives us a reason to work together.”

Ronnie, on lead vocals, wrote the song. He calls it, “The Grand Compromise”.

“The song is about learning empathy,” says Ronnie. It’s dedicated to his father who recently died.

In the audience, is Department of Corrections director Bryan Stirling who says programs like Decoda’s workshop, work. Recidivism rates are down.

“I’m amazed how many times I talk to folks who’ve turned their lives around in prison,” says Stirling. “All it takes is one person to say, ‘Hey get in this program, get your GED or high school diploma’”.

“I think hope is very important in a place like prison,” says Bryant. “It’s a very dark place.”

Bryant is bringing Decoda’s music workshop back to Lee this spring. It will be the first since 2019.

“She brings hope,” Ronnie says of Bryant. “And we appreciate that because I believe hope is the best of things.”

Hope; consider life without it. These men choose not to.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.