Sing Inside was recently awarded funding support from the BRIT Trust for its work delivering singing and music workshops in prisons across England.
Here, in the latest edition of the BRIT Trust Diaries, chief executive Maisie Hulbert tells Music Week about the work of Sing Inside and its origins and history…
The public are shielded from and routinely taught to avoid and ignore prisons and the people within them. People in prison are carefully othered, painted as people we cannot understand or relate to. Framing prisons in this way reinforces the idea that ‘criminality’ is something we can all easily avoid; that offending is simple and one-dimensional. My experience working in prisons has shown me that, in reality, the system is so much more complex than I was ever shown.
Sing Inside provides community singing workshops inside prisons. We bring volunteers from the local area into prisons to form choirs alongside people who are serving sentences inside prisons. This act of bringing two separated communities together through song bridges an imagined gap, and dismantles the perceived notion of there being huge differences between these people. I believe singing is particularly effective at doing this because it is an activity which draws out different emotions for everyone: reassurance, confidence, but also intense nervousness and feelings of inadequacy.
Working within a group to contribute your individual voice to a bigger whole is an incredibly rewarding way of giving expression to those emotions. We work to enable all our participants to enjoy singing with others free from judgement or assessment. We use group singing to inspire hope and confidence, break down barriers and facilitate connection to others.
Most fundamentally though, our workshops are fun – and while this may seem simple it has been one of the most radical steps we have taken as a charity in terms of our approach, vision and values. Prisons are highly punitive environments – and fun doesn’t really factor into their structure. However, enjoying activities either independently or with others is absolutely central to our sense of self. It is these activities which recharge our batteries: they give us the energy we need to go to that training session, to be bold for that difficult meeting, or to face that challenging job interview.
One of the most striking things about prison is that people serving sentences are expected to find that energy and motivation to improve things on their own, without ready access to the relationships and activities which might support them. They are expected to work with staff to identify their failings and problems and undertake programmes to improve their situation. They are expected to keep pushing for this, even in a system where often there are no staff to move them from cell to classroom; where there isn’t funding for them to take on the work or training which could really help; or where they have been imprisoned for far longer than their original expected sentence length without hope of release. To keep hope in this situation is unimaginably challenging – but we see people trying to be resilient enough to do this every day.
We use group singing to inspire hope and confidence, break down barriers and facilitate connection to others
People in prison are asked to do all of this by a state system – and often, people in prison have been repeatedly failed throughout their lives by other state agencies. Care, mental health services, youth support, housing and homelessness, police and law enforcement… the list is endless. They are asked to find trust that this time, it will be different. And they are asked to do so in a place where chances to laugh, connect with others, refuel, re-energise, access parts of our personality which we forget but which are healing and safe, and not attended to.
At Sing Inside we believe fun is absolutely essential for any of the other pieces of the puzzle to fall into place; jobs, a safe and stable home, community engagement and safety.
In the same breath, Sing Inside has now been working for nearly a decade and we have seen the prison system go through incredible challenge and hardship during this time. Staff are exhausted and overworked; the funding situation looks harder every year; and national political commentary continues to use prisons to score points with voters who understand little about a system which they have been shielded from.
The prison system has been gradually worsening for decades, and it does not deliver; crime and reoffending rates are not improved by greater use of imprisonment. Radical changes to the system are vital to ensure we create community systems which do not cause further harm and disengagement.
Talking about fun in prison is very unpopular. In the media we do not talk in nuanced ways about this, but we condemn prisons for letting their residents access Sky television; we pick apart the contents of their Christmas dinner and call it luxurious to give them extra roast potatoes; we act like it is fair and right that visits and time with family should be used as a means of punishment or reward. The longer I have worked in prisons, the more I see how fruitless this approach is. Almost everyone in prison will, one day, be released back into communities and at present, we do not give them the tools they need to do that successfully.
Working with Sing Inside has shown just how much a simple space which centres the power of music and connection to others can change outlooks and minds, and reinvigorate people to return to the wings and go back to work the next day.
People in prison continue to tell us that breaking their routine with enjoyable, accessible activities makes all the difference to their wellbeing, mental health and overall outlook. Of course, not everyone in prison will want to sing – and nor should they have to. But everyone in prison should be able to choose to do some of things which help them feel connected to others, and helps put them back on the right path as part of what are often complex roads to recovery and recognition of how their lives could change.
To volunteer, find out more, donate or get involved as a music leader or in other ways – take a look at singinside.org or follow the charity on socials: Twitter @SingInsideUK, Instagram @singinside, Facebook @SingInsideupdates.