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The Lullaby Project helps incarcerated mothers connect with their kids through music

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

When someone is pregnant and they're incarcerated, separation after they give birth is almost immediate. Many new mothers contend with emotional surges and anxieties during this time. But for those serving time, there's the additional formidable physical barrier. At a women's prison outside Columbia, S.C., a project is underway to help reconnect a few mothers with their children through the creation of lullabies.

ASHLEY: This is only a moment. Please don't forget me. Feel my arms around you. You are the best of me - Mama's world.

NADWORNY: That's Ashley. We're only using her first name here. She's incarcerated at the Graham Camille Griffin Correctional Institution, and she's taking part in the prison's pilot songwriting program, working with graduate students from the University of South Carolina School of Music.

ASHLEY: I was overjoyed. I was happy about being able to do this. But I have no, like, music training or anything, so it was a whole learning experience for me. But all I did was, you know, thought about my kids and then just started writing what I would say - what I would want to say to them.

NADWORNY: The women enrolled in the Lullaby Project are expecting mothers, along with some, like Ashley, who've recently delivered. The creative process in music doesn't always follow the timing of a gestational clock, so the song-making teams of graduate students, their professor and the women incarcerated in the South Carolina prison continue their work even after a woman has her baby.

ASHLEY: We wrote down the words and everything and we told them, hey, we want it like this. Like, I wanted mine kind of a Disney theme. But I just went off the songs that I - how I wanted it to sound. I was like, I wanted a little bit of "The Little Mermaid," "Part Of Your World" and then the song off of "Beauty And The Beast" when they dance together at, like, the end.

NADWORNY: Together, the grad students and the mothers chart out lyrics, workshop the melodies and collaborate on the layers of musicality needed to get the lullabies just right for a vocalist with the university.

CLAIRE BRYANT: All right, so Ashley has a chorus going here.

NADWORNY: Claire Bryant is a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Music.

BRYANT: Oh, "Mama's World."

ASHLEY: (Singing) This is only a moment. Please don't forget me. Feel my arms around you. You are the best of me - Mama's world.

(APPLAUSE)

BRYANT: Yes. That's so nice. We're getting there. All right.

As people out in the world, we maybe don't think about incarcerated mothers. We do not ask them about why they're there. That's not our business. That's not why we're there. We try to make them feel like just human beings making music.

NADWORNY: Bryant participated as a student when the Lullaby Project Initiative began over a decade ago, through the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall in New York City and, in 2022, worked to pilot the program at the Graham Camille Griffin Correctional Institution.

BRYANT: You know, incarcerated people will be coming back to our communities. They will be part of our society. They are part of our society. They are human beings. And who do we want coming back, and how do we want them to spend their incarceration?

NADWORNY: Ashley has five children, including her most recent. She says the hardest part of this is being away from them as she counts down the days till her parole or release. And she says the good graces of the students is not lost on those serving out their sentences.

ASHLEY: It's - yeah, they could be volunteering anywhere else, like an elementary or something. But they took their time to come to a prison. And even though we are here for crimes and we are sitting here being punished and everything, we're still human, and we still have families that care about us. And everybody makes mistakes, and we're here paying for our mistakes. So any mother out there that has kids, and they're your world, let them know it.

Gabe (ph) and Izzy (ph), y'all mean so much. Not enough words can describe how much. Y'all are Mama and Daddy's world. We will always be here for you through the ups and downs. You will never have to question how much you are loved. Please slow down. Don't grow up so fast. Y'all are our hearts - Mama and Daddy's world.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) This is only a moment. Please don't forget me. Feel my arms around you. You are the best of me. You are loved.

NADWORNY: That was the musical lullaby co-produced by Claire Bryant and her students at the University of South Carolina School of Music and co-written by Ashley, a mother of five, serving out her sentence at the Graham Camille Griffin Correctional Institution in Columbia, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.