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  • OHara Shipe

Why the caged bird sings: HMCC Lullaby Project celebrates its third year

HMCC inmate Olin Napoleon

Situated a mile and a half from a ritzy Eagle River neighborhood is a place that many Alaskans will never set foot in. Eleven log cabinesque buildings are spread across 62 acres of land—their backdrop, stunning views of snow-capped mountains. It is the kind of place that would be lovely to visit if it wasn’t surrounded by chain link fences topped with menacing barbed wire and warning signs to “enter only on official business”.

This is temporary home of approximately 400 inmates.

As Alaska’s only dedicated facility for housing female prisoners, Highland Mountain Correctional Center (HMCC) is already unique within Alaska’s Department of Corrections. The facility boasts a wide-array of pioneering rehabilitation and education programs—like the String Orchestra for Incarcerated Women which was one of the first of its kind. In 2016, HMCC introduced another pioneering program—the Lullaby Project. Originally established in 2008 by Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program, the Lullaby Project strives to create a sense of normalcy and emotional intimacy for distressed children and mothers struggling with homelessness or incarceration. Through a series of three interactions with a volunteer local musician, the mothers compose a lullaby for their children which is then professionally recorded and shared at a public performance. While, the project had been held in 25 cities nationwide by 2016, HMCC represented only the second time that it was replicated behind prison bars. The first was at the infamous Rikers Island Women’s Correctional Facility in New York.

The Alaskan incarnation was the brainchild of Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame member Shirley Mae Springer Staten. A long time human and civil rights activist, when Staten heard about the Lullaby Project on an NPR broadcast, she knew she needed to bring the project to Alaska and she did so in grand fashion.

In its first year, the Lullaby Project featured 16 lullabies written by incarcerated women and amazingly, their public concert sold out with 200 friends, family members and community members packing HMCC’s small gymnasium.

Since then, HMCC has expanded to house a small number of displaced male inmates who were part of Palmer Correctional Center’s now defunct Transformational Living Community program (TLC). In response, the Lullaby Project has also grown.

Highland Mountain Correctional Center inmate

“When I first got here they were making announcements that they were going to be doing the Lullaby Project again. I was a little bit skeptical at first because I didn't exactly know what the Lullaby Project was,” recalls HMCC inmate Olin Napoleon.

Once Napoleon, who is of Yup’ik descent, discovered that the lullaby project would enable him to write a piece of music for his son, he knew that it was something he wanted to be a part of.

“Being able to portray my love for my son through music is huge because I grew up in music as well. When I grew up in Hooper Bay, we didn't have big screen TVs—our big screen TV was at 13-inch black and white and we had one channel. So, our entertainment was family get-togethers where we would all sing in the living room,” says Napoleon who remembers particularly loving songs from the Sound of Music, Gordon Lightfoot and John Denver.

But Napoleon’s song won’t sound anything like the music he grew up with. “I really wanted this to be a lullaby,” Napoleon says.

Napoleon’s son who is now 11-years-old, is the same age Napoleon was when his own father was incarcerated for 10 years. It is a fact that Napoleon does not take lightly.

“I’ve been in and out of prison for 15 years and I followed in my father’s footsteps in some ways. That is why the lullaby I wrote is about generational forgiveness. First the forgiveness had to come from my father, then from me and now from my son. I want him to feel the love I have for him and to tell him that our family’s suffering ends with me,” explains Napoleon before singing a few lines from his lullaby. “Your papa is forgiven, it sets my heart free. In the forgiveness I have shared, now I look to thee. Show me your love so it’s plain to see. Show me your love by living free.”

Although Napoleon hopes that his lullaby will encourage his son not take the same path as he did, he also hopes that it will send a specific message to the public.

“Growing up, when I saw people in jail, I saw that there was kind of a stigma that these people are terrible—they're bad. There's a reason why they were in prison. I think allowing the men to be a part of this project is a wonderful way for us as individuals to be able to reach out to the public and say ‘hey, we're human beings ourselves.’ In a lot of ways, we're no different than you,” explains Napoleon.

On Saturday at 1 p.m, Napoleon will have the opportunity to perform his lullaby in front of his son. But not every inmate in the project will have the same chance. 35-year-old Amanda Napageak does not have any children of her own and due to a long history of felony DUIs and assault convictions, has little contact with her family in Nuiqsik.

“My choices started with my poor decisions and not grieving properly over any type of loss. It led me to start drinking and I fell into a lot of addictions. It has caused my family a lot of pain and a lot of sorrow which they never would speak openly to me about, but it's written all over their faces,” Napageak says with tears welling in her eyes. “It’s hard not to have contact with them, especially with the holiday season and it was just my birthday a few days ago.”

HMCC inmate Amanda Napageak

Napageak’s desire to reach out to her family was her inspiration for applying to be a part of the Lullaby Project, despite not fitting the traditional description of a program participant. She says that she was surprised, but grateful, when selected as she believed she had something important to say.

“I felt like writing a lullaby was a way I could communicate with my family in a way that they would understand. It was just a way to let them know I love them and that I think of them. I want them to take credit for the things that I am good at, like being social and being able to sing. You know, those were how my family raised me and are important to us,” says Napageak.

Without a child to center the lullaby around, Napageak opted to write to her 52 cousins back home in the village. Like Napoleon, Napageak is Alaska Native and acknowledges the sacred role music plays in Inupiaq culture.

“This was the only angle that I knew I could communicate to them straight from my heart. You know, when I get to go home, they will look at me as a criminal because they know my background—they know where I've been, where I'm going and what I've done,” Napageak explained. “That was a big reason for me to do this—so they could know how genuine my words are. They could know how much I love them.”

Napageak also hopes that in being a part of the Lullaby Project, she will also experience the love she doesn’t currently have in her life. “I would hear the remarkable stories of the other people who did the project before. Like they would talk about how they felt so loved and how people would come out here to see them perform,” says Napageak, who is hopeful that come Sunday, someone will be in the audience for her.

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