What kind of person do you want your neighbor to be?” Claire asks. “These are people who are locked up. If we do not give them tools, hope, empathy, then what will life be like for them when they are released? Already, they have a stigma attached to them for the rest of their lives. We want their re-entry to be successful.”
It is doubtful, when she grew up in Camden and pledged herself to cello studies at age 13, that Claire imagined her life would revolve around convicted offenders. She is the cellist and founder of Decoda, a New York-based chamber music ensemble that travels the globe. She had a life-changing experience as a musician when Decoda had a chance to work with the incarcerated at Sing Sing Correctional Facility through a Carnegie Hall Musical Connections program. For several days they worked with a handful of music-minded prisoners to develop songs and musical skills. She says that she witnessed men transform before her eyes.
The indelible impression the experience made on her prompted the creation of a similar program at Lee Correctional Center near her hometown of Camden. The program is called Music for Transformation, a social justice initiative to empower vulnerable and disenfranchised voices. This year marks four years that she, along with Decoda musicians, has conducted an “insanely powerful” workshop that consists of three to eight hour days working with inmates serious about developing musical talents, whether they are skilled in playing instruments or song writing.
“They have to commit 100 percent to the workshop. This is not a ‘camp,’ and we are not condoning what got them here in the first place,” says Claire. “This workshop and anything that we do does not change the fact that they are in prison. But we all need empathy to survive, and these people need to know they have options when they are released and that their lives matter.”
This past February, Decoda performed with the Danish String Quartet at the Fine Arts Center in Camden. Toward the end of the concert was the culmination of the musicians’ work the previous week at Lee Correctional Center. Even though no musical experience was necessary, Claire says an “amazing pianist” and a “talented guitarist” were among the incarcerated to be chosen by merit to develop songs. The inmates also had a chance, at the end of the week, to perform for others in the general population at Lee as well as for staff, guards and any family members or friends who were cleared to attend the concert.
“It’s been a big tool to help me change,” admits one inmate.
Claire says she now travels the globe working with the least of these to develop musical talent and elevate confidence regarding artistic abilities and personal expression. This past fall, she was in Europe with Decoda working with refugees. She is also always raising funds to continue ongoing music programs as no federal or state funds assist her efforts. “It’s on us,” she says. “And we keep doing it because it’s incredibly powerful — personally and spiritually — and it gives us hope that for at least some of these men, something artistic can be a catalyst for a life change.”
The perception of prison life is often shaped by such popular shows as Prison Break or Orange is the New Black. The only activities it looks like prisoners have access to are jogging, weight lifting and basketball. However, one physical activity that is beginning to be offered in both women’s and men’s prisons throughout the United States is yoga. Through the Prison Yoga Project, yoga instructors can become trained, certified and cleared to volunteer as an instructor in some prison facilities — and to train inmates to teach as well.
Angela Still is one such volunteer. Even though her primary career is as a high school English teacher at Lexington One’s alternative school called FOCUS, she became a yoga instructor about 10 years ago. After she attended a Prison Yoga Project program in Asheville, she walked away convinced it was her calling to bring yoga into some of South Carolina’s prisons.
Prison Yoga Project’s Founder James Fox has found that many prisoners suffer from complex trauma due to a past of neglect, homelessness, domestic violence, sexual abuse or addictions. Then, if they are incarcerated, the mental, physical and emotional stress often heightens. Yoga is a physical and mental activity that can lead an incarcerated person to learn empathy. As is stated on the program’s website: “And empathy, when encouraged, leads to compassion. Gradually, the cycle of violence is interrupted.”
“I have a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling, and my extended family has a history of addictive behaviors,” says Angela. “My skills as a teacher, knowledge in counseling and my training in yoga all meshed together to form my purpose in life — to help an underserved population.”
Her first experience was at LEATH Women’s Correctional Institute in Greenwood. She expanded into Camille Griffin Graham in Columbia, the state’s other women’s facility. She has taught upward of 80 women in a class. Just recently, she began working with men at McCormick Correctional Institution in McCormick. She raises funds through the Give Back Yoga Foundation for mats and instructional DVDs that prisons can keep so inmates can participate in yoga when instructors are not available.
Angela is so passionate about the effects of yoga on prisoners that her classes participated in a research project with the University of San Francisco to determine prisoners’ emotional health before and after yoga. Angela eventually desires to do more research.
“There just needs to be tools to help prisoners learn to cope,” she says. “Of course, we are not going to help a person who does not want to be helped. But I believe redemption is a real thing, and all of us have an obligation to see others as human beings.”
One prisoner shared: “Yoga helped me come out of a dark place with myself. I feel privileged to have learned about yoga and myself. I try to practice every day, and remember to love myself so that I may love others and do no harm.”
To those who argue that prisoners are in prisons to be punished, not catered to, Angela replies: “We’re not coddling. This is not a reward. Some people call us ‘hug-a-thugs,’ but that puts a negative connotation on what we are trying to do. We don’t pamper –– we simply give them a coping mechanism.”
Angela says she has kept in touch with some women who have been released and has secured some free yoga classes so women can continue as they re-enter society. One formerly incarcerated woman has become Angela’s friend and is considering becoming a yoga instructor.
The chance of prisoners returning to prison greatly diminishes when educated, according to an Oct. 27, 2016 issue of Prison Education News. General Education Development programs abound in many prison facilities. However, a few facilities in South Carolina also offer writing programs and even an opportunity to earn an Associate of Arts degree.
Writers Block is a group that works with a select number of inmates at Perry Correctional Institution in Pelzer. This group helps prisoners learn to express thoughts and information creatively and accurately. Writing is taught in the form of workshops.
Columbia International University’s initiative enables eligible inmates, those who “meet and maintain high standards of personal conduct,” to enroll in an Associate of Arts degree program that provides instruction on the Bible and theology, general education (including math, history, science and psychology), and general ministry skills. Essentially, those who earn the degree become teacher-missionaries to other inmates.
Gwynette Waters has experienced great personal rewards educating inmates through the Palmetto Unified School District. She recently left a 17-year career as a middle and high school teacher and says that the 17- to 21-year-olds at Wateree Correctional Institution who are required to finish their education — as well as those who attend classes because they desire to better themselves through education — are polite, kind and enthusiastic.
The irony is that she rarely had middle and high school students willing and wanting to learn, yet the inmates are eager. “I feel like I’m able to truly teach again,” she says. “Prisons should be about rehabilitation. Former prisoners need to be able to be productive citizens when they get out. I know many young people out there have a misconception about prisons, but if anyone has an opportunity to enter a prison, I can tell you there is nothing fun about it. Inmates are told what to do constantly, they have to wear the same thing every day … there is nothing glamorous or ‘street cred’ about it. Most who are in there do not want to return after they are released. I teach them that their path can be paved with an education.”
Leave it to animals to teach compassion to people who may not have ever experienced any. At Wateree River Correctional Institution in Rembert, inmates learn kindness and patience while working with an on-site barn full of off-the-race-track Thoroughbreds through a program called Second Chances. Twice a year, about a dozen incarcerated men enter the South Carolina Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation-sponsored program and learn to feed, exercise, groom, help train and generally care for horses awaiting possible adoption. Graduates of the program earn what is called a Groom Elite card and can work at stables nationwide after they are released.
One inmate, who had never been around horses before, explains that he loved cowboy movies growing up but never imagined he would be working so closely with horses. He says that although he is taking care of the horses, they take care of him too.
In addition, Healing Species, an Orangeburg-based animal rescue organization, teaches responsibility, interaction and empathy through neglected, scared and untrained dogs. Inmates are chosen and paired with dogs who need to be loved and trained so that they are eventually adoptable.
“A hardened heart can be softened by the unconditional love these dogs provide,” points out Healing Species founder and attorney, Cheri Brown Thompson.
Inmates who have worked with dogs comment on how the dogs do not judge them for past sins; instead, the dogs show unconditional love — an attribute many begin to model after working with the dogs.
These and many other diverse programs are funded by individuals, businesses and organizations, inspired by statistics and personal accounts that attest to the fact that releasing a prisoner into society without skills increases recidivism rates. Rehabilitation programs are a win-win for inmates and citizens.
Far from excusing or rewarding the bad behavior of inmates, the goal of such programs is to give them tools for coping, changing and modifying their mindsets. As Claire Bryant maintains, an inmate’s identity is about much more than the illegal act that landed him or her behind bars.
South Carolina prison programs and initiatives are always in need of both funding and volunteers. For more information, visit PrisonEducation.com.