...A Very Different Kettle of Fish

Dr Jacs and I have been to another prison. I can’t tell you which one… sorry… but I promise I will if I’m allowed.

When Jacs (my name for Dr. Jacs) and I meet in the station up North we are both feeling positive about another day promoting our philosophy of Educate, Mentor, Inspire. After the wonderful day we had at Swinfen Hall HMP we can’t wait to embark on our next adventure.

The car stops in the prison car park and we grab our stuff and head to reception. First impressions; the place looks tired. The staff do too. They file past us slowly to check in to security. We follow behind and notice they don’t look as if they are relishing their job …maybe it’s because it’s early morning. We dismiss any doubts. We are in what is called a YOI, a young offenders prison, so the age range is from fifteen to eighteen, all male.

A member of staff comes to find us in the education office. She has a gentle demeanour, and reminds me of a Primary School teacher.

Our workshop falls under the ‘enrichment’ policy that some prisons support, and this person is in charge of Music education. She is very pleasant, probably in her thirties. She leads us to the music room. Jacs and I feel quite heartened when we see that there are keyboards and a computer set up, obviously there is work going on here. This bodes well.

A large table dominates the centre of the room and we think it would be a good idea to put all the chairs around it so the attendees will have some place to write.

Since we are waiting for the prison wardens to bring them along, Jacs and I attempt to move the chairs. The chairs refuse. It takes two of us to wrestle them into place around the table. I have to admit to feeling feel slightly uneasy at this point ; there is obviously a reason the chairs are so heavy.

Dr. Jacs and I exchange looks. I ask our member of staff if there is anything we should know about the group coming in to join us.

‘Well…’, she ventures cautiously, ‘They can be a bit rowdy and Larry (name changed) is really good musically, but, he won’t ever be going home and the others kind of look up to him.’

Jacs and I exchange another look. This could be is a challenging morning. However, there is no time to discuss tactics. The door opens and ten young men burst into the room. The door is locked behind them.

They walk straight past Jacs and I and head to a far corner of the room. Our handshakes are completely ignored except for two younger lads who sit down at the table. We wait for the others to join us. They don’t.

Our gentle member of staff walks towards the group in the corner and she tries to cajole them into joining us. Then she tempts them with chocolate biscuits and a carton of orange juice….no luck.

This is not good. Clearly there is no authority in this room and the staff member can not handle the situation… oh and by the way …we are locked in. Neither Jacs nor I are impressed.

‘I’m not having this‘, says Dr. Jacs, and she heads over to the group, ‘Look you lot , Megg and I got up at 4:30 am to be here today, just so you could learn something about how the music business might benefit you when you leave these walls. But if you aren’t interested maybe we can get officers to take you back to your cells’.

There is silence for two seconds, as they absorb her words, then she too is ignored.

The staff member looks on.

In a quick exchange Dr. Jacs and I agree we aren’t putting up with this lack of respect. We don’t care what they are doing, we are doing our workshop. I take out my guitar, tune it, and I start to sing… loudly.

The two lads at the table look a bit sheepish. The staff member wriggles in her seat uncomfortably.

But then, something happens. The noise stops and a lad sits down at a keyboard nearby. He joins in with my song. It’s Larry. I smile. His friend sits down at the table and listens. The song ends.

The noise momentarily starts again, but this time Larry is in his own world and plays a riff that has caught his fancy. He’s not looking for anyone to join in, but I do anyway, with a bass beat. He’s happy with that.

Dr. Jacs seizes the moment. She stands up, gets out the coloured pens and the whiteboard and announces...’ We are writing a song!’

Thanks Dr. Jacs… and we’re off.

As Larry and I play the riff around and around. I ask the room, who can rap to the beat. The group volunteer Larry’s friend. He looks slightly sheepish. But now the room is listening. They start to sit around the table. This is risky …it takes courage to launch into a rap.

'I can’t …just like that' he says

'Oh yes you can …', I say.

Dr. Jacs encourages him…’ Just say how you feel’

He forgets to ignore her. ‘I don’t know’, he says ‘It’s like… I’m in the shadows'

And that becomes the first line to the song.

‘We can work with that… right Larry?’

Rap LyricsLarry nods. The game is on. Soon, more words are volunteered and the others join in. Larry’s friend starts to find a tune, I go with him and we ‘harmonise’ …oh yes, we do. At last we’ve found a common language…..Music.

When we naturally come to an end, Dr. Jacs is there with her encouragement and congratulations. We have written a song together, we own it, it belongs to us, the writers in the room and at last we can explain that their creativity has value. They have value. Once they recognise that with any luck they won’t be coming back to this …quite frankly, horrible place.

This notion inspires the group and they ask if they can show us what they have been writing together. Larry goes to the computer and he finds his backing track. Soon they are all rapping and acting out an improvised sequence of pretend filming. Its actually really entertaining.

This was not the workshop we had planned and our workbooks are more or less untouched. But still Dr. Jacs and I have managed to pull something out the bag… but we are drained.

Thank goodness for the lunch break. But it’s not over… there’s an afternoon session to look forward to… flippin eck!

As Jacs and I munch our sandwiches in the education room we watch the other staff load themselves up with cartons of orange juice and chocolate biscuits from a large stash in the corner of the room, then head off.

Our staff member does the same and then she gives us the heads up that we should be moving soon. The afternoon session is in the multi faith Chapel. Its quite airy and the floors are carpeted. It absorbs the sound much better. We have seven lads this time and they seem happier to co-operate. They talk about their experiences in this prison.

They tell us that on Fridays after they have eaten and because of a shortage of staff the inmates can often spend twenty -three hours in their cells without being let out. There is a lad in this group with ADHD and I can’t imagine how he copes. He’s already bouncing off the walls and he can only contribute to the group as he walks around.

As the inevitable orange juice and chocolate biscuits are handed out, I am reminded of London Zoo. Is this really the best they can do?

Hats off to Dr. Jacs, she’s not a quitter and she gallantly gets out the whiteboard. I get out the guitar and she galvanises the group into thinking about the lyrics of a song they could write.

The result is below…

Rap Lyrics

Reading between the lines it says quite a lot. We are even able to discuss the music business and copyright. Some can see the value in it. In this group certificates are awarded and we finish off as the attendees are collected to go back to their cells. One lad is particularly pleased with his certificate. He has been behaving himself and this certificate might go towards some more points towards showing he can be trusted to go on a four hour outside visit with his family. We keep our fingers crossed for him.

Did we enjoy this visit? Not really. Did we make a difference? Yes I believe we did, but not without difficulty.

This is part of the email I sent to Dr. Jacs the day after our visit.

Morning Jacs, So much to reflect on. Although it was difficult, it was also very interesting and I feel pleased to have done it. The experience was character building and important (in my mind). I was imagining what kind of impression a person of authority going into that prison to see it in operation might think. In that instance the staff would make sure it was looking its best and everyone was on their toes; as a result it would not be an accurate report.

We know differently.

I felt we were almost like under cover agents seeing everything as it is with no frills. And quite frankly it was shocking. The week previously we saw the opposite, a Governor obviously doing a great job and inspiring everyone to do their best and that was so heartening.

What was so upsetting in my opinion was that the lads were being short changed. If they had been in Swinfen their lives might have had a chance of turning around… but not so in this place. The staff were not motivated, it was filthy and their methods of control didn’t work.

Also they were allowing the same gang mentality to perpetuate in the prison as I imagine it is on the outside. Bad behaviour was rewarded with chocolate and orange drinks. They were not in control. This isn’t doing anyone any favours.

Well, although I’m shocked I’m also energised. This important work Jacs and am glad to do it with you. Happily neither of us are daunted by speaking truth to power… if we can find some power to speak to!

So what now ? Well it’s onwards and upwards of course… For Dr.Jacs and I, giving up is just not an option.

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