BISHOPVILLE, SC (WIS) - "I would see the music in the hymnal and I didn't know what all those squiggly lines were. If they can teach me how to read music, they can teach anybody."
Dogs, chess, beekeeping and now classical music. Inmates at Lee Correctional Institution who earn the privilege through good behavior are learning things that can enrich anyone's life, even if the rest of that life will be spent locked up.
"I put myself here," said an inmate named Randy, who's serving life without parole for a murder conviction. "I'm responsible for the actions that I took that got me here. I'm guilty. I'm paying man's price for what I did. But I'm at peace with myself. For the first time since 1977, I can relax."
Twenty inmates from the prison's Better Living Incentive Community unit learned music from some of the most elite professionals in the world. The inmates were selected by lottery out of 128 who applied for the program.
"Once those names were pulled, it looked like these guys had won the lottery, that's how excited they were," said Warden Dennis Bush.
Camden native Claire Bryant is a cellist with Decoda, who brought the program to Lee Correctional.
"The moment we came in here and played music for each other, right away the trust was – we were there, they were here. It happened through music," she said.
Decoda presented a similar project in New York's maximum-security Sing Sing Correctional Facility as part of Carnegie Hall's Musical Connections program. The Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County helped bring Claire and her fellow musicians to Lee Correctional and a performance in Camden last week.
"We've been very impressed with the facility here," Bryant said.
Classical music may be ironic in a prison that has been the scene of riots and contraband cell phone issues in the past two years. Since the BLIC unit was founded, problems in that unit have ceased.
"If it can work here in the biggest institution in South Carolina, it can work anywhere in the state," said Associate Warden James Dean.
Inmates in the BLIC unit sign a contract, promising to respect each other, trust each other, and live according to the rules. Starting with 128 inmates, the unit recently expanded to 256 and plans are eventually to expand the program to the entire facility if the inmates earn it.
That's no small task for a maximum-security facility that houses convicted murders and other violent offenders. Three-hundred inmates are on the waiting list for BLIC. Since the unit was founded after the riots in 2012, Associate Warden Dean says there have been no disciplinary incidents, including calls for response or theft. The entire unit has tested negative for drugs and no contraband cell phones have been found.
"They won't let anyone mess up what they got," said Dean.
BLIC inmates can take classes from music to Biblical Greek, even beekeeping and conflict resolution. Many classes are taught by the inmates themselves, exemplifying their experience and individual knowledge. They are learning skills that can help them once they are released, if they are released.
"Having lived in this department for decades, this new BLIC unit has given me the opportunity to learn what it is to be a man in my six-decade life," said Randy. "I've been a slave my whole life to alcohol and drugs and I couldn't be freer in this prison."
Inmates in BLIC are relieved that they can live in peace, safely among other inmates whom they can trust. BLIC also hosts several dogs rehabilitating through the Healing Species program.
"I didn't think we would have that here for a long time" said another.
"The ultimate goal is to help people transition into society and contribute for people who want to have a better way of living, there is an option for them," said an inmate.
"You're not changing how they act, but who they are."
"You can't be negative back here behind the fences and expect to be positive in society," said Warden Bush. "This program made the institution safer."
Unlike other dorms in the prison, inmates in BLIC are allowed to keep musical instruments in their cells.
"I've served 40 years but I've not seen programs with this thrust and emphasis," said an inmate. "It's been very gratifying to see."
Some in the Decoda program had musical experience, others did not. No matter their level of experience, the inmates were encouraged to write and perform their own music, which was displayed at a concert in the prison chapel Saturday.
"That makes us know that we're doing our job right," said Bryant. "That we're here to inspire them and to help draw out the creativity that lives inside of them and to encourage collaboration. To walk in and hear them rehearsing and singing and playing the music that they wrote, you can't get a better feeling than that."
"When I went into music, I just thought I'd be on a stage all the time," said Bryant. "And I think what Decoda, my colleagues and I have figured out is that to be an artist in today's society, it's much more than walking on a concert hall stage. It's really about using music to connect with people and celebrate that humanity together."
"Thank you all for what you do," one of the inmates told the Decoda musicians. "I will take what I learned and use it when I get out."
Decoda was hosted by the Fine Arts Center of Kershaw County through a grant provided by the Hootie and the Blowfish Foundation.
"It's going to be hard to leave here because we've made some very strong bonds," Bryant said.
"There's good people here," said an inmate. "Now there's [sic] opportunities to allow us to do that."
"We can't judge them," said Bush. "Our job is to make them better and prepare them guys [sic] for society."
"We're living proof we're not a threat."
"When you're cleaned up of the drugs and alcohol, you're generally a good man."
"I might have made a mistake, but I'm not a mistake."
Note: Although the South Carolina Department of Corrections allows reporters to talk to inmates, policy prohibits them from being recorded, photographed or identified.