Frontiers began following the Lullaby Project at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center in Eagle River since it began in 2016 with two groups of women – mothers in prison and local musicians, who helped them compose lullabies for their children. 

It was modeled after a national lullaby movement, led by Carnegie Hall, but the Hiland project has a distinctly Alaskan flavor.

It was an emotional and inspiring experience to watch the moms and the local artists collaborate on songs. Later the musicians recorded them in a studio in Anchorage, where they were compiled onto a CD and later performed at a community concert, held at Hiland. Also, all of the inmates’ children received their own CD, with a personal message from mom.

Last year, in its third year, the project reached a new milestone. Eight inmates from the men’s unit at Hiland were brought into the program, paired up with eight male artists. This is the first lullaby prison project in the nation to include men.

Photojournalist Will Mader and I couldn’t help but notice the differences between the men’s and women’s lullaby projects.

When the women met, there was a constant flow of chatter, tears and hugs. The men were more subdued and self-contained -- but as they worked together, we began to see that their process was simply different than the women’s and just as powerful. The men were in some ways even more vulnerable than the women. 

Here are some of the highlights from this week’s show:

  • Alaska’s first lullaby project: A brief history. 
  • The lullaby men’s journey begins: Eight dads in yellow and eight musicians meet at the Hiland Mountain prison. In a few hours, they must build the necessary trust to go forward with the project.
  • The birth of a lullaby: A sweeping musical journey that begins with letters that the inmates wrote to their children. From these letters, lyrics to the lullabies were crafted and turned into songs. The beauty of this music is the thread that runs through the entire show.

This show is also filled with personal stories like that of David Anderson, an inmate who wrote a lullaby for his mom, Carli. Both were once incarcerated at Hiland at the same time. Though in different units, they were able to reconnect. They joked that they looked awesome in their matching yellow outfits.

This was the first time David had seen his mom since he went into foster care as a child. She was later released and David hoped his lullaby would encourage her in her struggles with addiction.

Sadly, in all too many cases, serving time in prison has become a family tradition. The Lullaby Project aims to break the cycle by helping inmates build bridges to their children and families.

Finally, the lullabies themselves, are a testament to the power of music to heal, to help inmates change from the inside out.

After working on this project for several months, a lot of the songs are stuck in my head. And when I’m alone, I find myself singing them out loud. There’s something about this story that stays with me.  

Ultimately, I guess it’s the music that carries this show, and my colleague Will Mader’s seamless visual storytelling and editing.

We are posting the full, one-hour expanded version of this week’s show with interviews and more stories about how lullabies, one of the oldest forms of music, still have such primal power to comfort and heal.

Special thanks to Shirley Mae Springer Staten, director of Keys to Life, the non-profit which launched the Lullaby Project in Alaska, as well as Gloria Johnson, superintendent at Hiland Mountain. Both gave us access to a story with an important message for our times – that the healing of mankind lies in that bond between parents and their children.

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