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Hiland Mountain Lullaby Project aims to change narratives around women in prison

Hiland Mountain Correctional Center inmate Falesha Taylor holds her daughters Ziara Arnold and Liliana Nguyen close as she performs her lullaby at the prison in Eagle River on Saturday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Falesha Taylor held her daughters — Liliana, 7, and Ziara, 10 — close while she sang them a lullaby Saturday morning.

Taylor's lullaby, "Together Again," was one she wrote herself, and she wasn't just singing for her daughters in attendance. Instead, she sang it onstage to a crowd of about 200 who gathered at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center to hear inmates like Taylor share songs as part of the women's prison's "lullaby project."

"I love you to the moon and back, till the stars stop shining bright," lead vocalist and local musician Dr. Tamara McCoy sang to the audience in the tune of Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason." Taylor picked the melody because she often sings the Chapman song to her children in her life outside the prison.

The audience began to sing along as the chorus repeated itself. Taylor held her children close as they all began to cry.

"We'll all be together again," McCoy sang as the song ended.

Hiland Mountain Correctional Center inmate Stephanie Hill performs a lullaby created with singer-songwriter Emily Kurn at the prison in Eagle River on Saturday. The Hiland Mountain Lullaby Project paired inmates with musicians to help them craft a lullaby to their children. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Connections between mothers, children and the community are what lullaby project director Shirley M. Springer Staten hopes to create. She said programs like the lullaby project can help "change narratives" around women who go to prison.

"(The public) can see them from a different viewpoint," Springer Staten said. "They did commit the crime, and they know that, but they are not defined by the crime. They have an opportunity to rewrite the script for their own lives."

Springer Staten decided to pursue the project after hearing about the Carnegie Hall Lullaby Project on NPR last year. She even traveled to New York City to learn how to implement the program that pairs inmates with professional musicians.

So far, 25 other cities have participated in the project, mostly as outreach to homeless women. Hiland Mountain is only the second prison to participate after New York City's Rikers Island.

This summer, 16 women began working on the project. They started by completing a workbook that gives them writing prompts on what they might say to their children. From there, the inmates partnered with a musician to help them work through ideas to create their lullaby.

On Saturday, the women performed the songs in the Hiland Mountain gymnasium. Some sang; others left it to the professionals. Some sat with their families, holding their young children in their laps.

Others sat with fellow members of the lullaby project, who wore bright orange and green shirts printed with the phrase "Every day is a gift." They held hands and sang along to the songs of their fellow inmates. Many wiped away tears or prayed with one another during the performance.

McCoy said that during the process, musicians never asked the women directly about their crimes, though sometimes the women would bring them up. Not focusing on the crimes allowed the musicians to challenge their own notions about prisoners.

Hiland Mountain Correctional Center inmate Brandy Varney scoops up one of her daughters, Jakayla Duarte, as she arrived at the prison in Eagle River on Saturday. Varney was later on stage for the performance of her lullaby to her children Markayla Duarte and Jakayla Duarte. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

"You can have a preconception about someone in this state, but they're normal people," McCoy said. "To hear how much they love and miss their children and want to do better — it's like musical counseling."

Monique Staxx's children couldn't make it to the concert Saturday. But Staxx, 34, said the process of working through the lullaby was still healing. She said the process taught her how to say sorry to her 13-year-old daughter, Jordan, and 16-year-old son, Aaron.

"I gave my children up for my addiction," she said. "I gave them up, but I never gave up on them."

"Now I'm able to get this out there and express myself," she said of her song, titled "You Are My Life."

Marchela Fast, 26, said living with 400 other women in a prison means it can be difficult to get along all the time. But family and children, she said, are what "pulls us all together."

Hiland Mountain Correctional Center inmate Marchela Fast holds her daughter Alaziah Fast-Detroy before Fast performs her lullaby at the prison in Eagle River on Saturday. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Her song, "The Mostest More," was written for her daughter, 4-year-old Alaziah. Her song was inspired by the phone conversations they have together. She said each call ends with them saying they love each other "the mostest more."

Fast hadn't seen her daughter in months, she said. On Saturday, she held Alaziah through the entire concert.

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