How making music is changing lives in UK prisons
Having access to music-making programmes can dramatically reduce the chances of young people in prison reoffending. Rap is the most popular outlet, but evidence shows that any type of music programme can help build emotional resilience and self-esteem amongst those incarcerated. DJ Mag speaks to representatives from the Irene Taylor Trust’s Music In Prisons programme, the InHouse Records label and the Finding Rhythms initiative to find out how music is unlocking talent and changing lives in UK prisons
You have to admire Judah Armani’s determination. The 50-year-old, Tehran-born, London-bred designer dedicates his expertise to long-term projects aimed at creating “safe and enabling environments” and promoting self-improvement within vulnerable communities.
After a decade of working in homelessness, and frustrated at the lack of impact his work was having, in 2015 he turned to another overlooked demographic: the staff and residents of English prisons. Starting out by researching and best practice-sharing with guards, probation officers, governors and residents, and after input from all participants, he presented music as a powerful basis for interventions. After a two-year process, Armani launched InHouse Records: the world’s first label recruiting its roster through workshops behind bars.
After an inaugural, one-man acoustic guitar session at a single location, InHouse has grown. By mid-2019, 300 men in six prisons and 40 ex-prisoners were involved. The business side looks solid, too. Due to legal restrictions, those on workshops inside are only eligible to release music on InHouse after their release from prison. At which point, partnerships with the likes of AWAL, Sony Publishing and Universal’s Caroline International are lined up to handle publishing and distribution, with contracts expected to offer 80% of revenue to artists.
UK prisons are in serious crisis. A 2020 Reform report showed 70% of institutions were over capacity, with an estimated 500 places lost to disrepair annually. As western Europe’s leader for incarceration rates, where 48% of adults who serve a custodial sentence are rearrested within 12 months of release, there’s an urgent need to rethink, and music and creative projects can form part of a wider solution.
According to InHouse’s own numbers, across four locations, less than 1% of those enrolled reoffended within 18 months of release, while prison staff observed an average 428% increase in good behaviour incidents among participants.
“We’re certainly not the finished article, as a service and as a process,” Armani tells DJ Mag, speaking about InHouse. “We can improve by releasing music. At the moment it’s a protracted affair, partly because we needed to get a sign off from the Ministry of Justice to release music and because we’re working with bigger labels: they were the people that showed us most love at the beginning. We want to work with them, they carry authenticity and validation.”
“It’s about up-skilling people, giving them that confidence, giving them the tools to go out there and do something useful with it"
InHouse begins dropping tracks from its catalogue of more than 300 recordings this spring, with plans for digital output every two months. The first artists include Beatz, Josh, C Roots, George T and Magic, but samples from the stable have already surfaced on the label’s website and Instagram, from Renz’s piano-topped, sticky trap to Dushane’s haunting, lo-fi soul.
“I think it’s 100% rap, all over,” InHouse’s producer, Grace Holbrook, says of the sounds dominating workshops and recording sessions. She nods to the popularity of drill, before recalling one guy who wanted to make opera and another who loved country music. “We literally get anything. We’ve had drum & bass guys who just want to MC on the mic. That’s fine. Come down and do that! We can get anything, but I would say the majority of my workload is making beats and recording raps.”
Workshops take place in different environments depending on the prison, but the goal is always the same — individual improvement. For InHouse, the chance to explore what you might be good at promotes self-worth, and the group work boosts communication and collaborative skills. Adding to the offering, a distinct learning programme, Continuum, has 200 prisoners and ex-prisoners studying for an Arts Award through a weekly print booklet and 500 hours of audio-video material, supervised by staff member JayJay Boylan. After release from prison, the team offer emotional support and signposting to essential services, not just music networks; there’s also the permanent space at Sugarhouse Studios in Bermondsey, London, which they’ve secured until 2023.
“Before I started as a manager I was a participant, so I was serving [a sentence],” says Carl Corbin, the man keeping InHouse artists ‘on the same page’ as the team. Getting onto the project offered him a distraction from prison life, and helped prepare for a different future. “Not only is the environment depressing, things might not be going too well outside of prison, so you haven’t got a lot of power to help your family through certain things, other than just over the phone,” he says. “I can only speak for myself, but it gave me more confidence.”
MUSIC IN PRISONS
InHouse’s focus on men reflects the UK criminal justice situation — a 2020 House of Commons Research Briefing shows just 4% of the overall prison population is female. And they often face markedly different challenges inside, too: self-harm, not assault, is a leading cause for concern, and the latest Ministry of Justice figures put prevalence at a 10-year high. Established in 1995, the Irene Taylor Trust has been running its Music In Prisons programme for 25 years at both male and female facilities, providing emotional and mental health support alongside training.
Intensive five-day projects see groups of 10 prisoners write and record five tracks together over the course of that week. On Friday, each receives three copies of their music on disc, complete with professional cover art, before performing to audiences of up to 150 people either in prison or at community events, depending on the circumstances of participants.
“I became involved in the programme because I had just done two months in hospital for severe mental health issues; I was very, very suicidal,” says Patricia, a former Music In Prisons participant who asked to use a pseudonym, indicative of stigma that can linger after release.
“The programme was introduced to me, but I wasn’t interested at all. I felt it was just another organisation coming in to make us feel judged, because that’s how we felt most of the time. “I walked in there, pretty much with arms folded, expecting to just turn away, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. You felt so accepted, so validated,” she continues.
A decade on, Patricia remains connected to the Irene Taylor Trust, whether delivering workshops or singing at events. Echoing Corbin, she’s clear on the project’s value extending well beyond making music. “It’s about up-skilling people, giving them that confidence, giving them the tools to go out there and do something useful with it. If people constantly feel worthless, they behave that way,” Patricia says. “Up-skilling people whilst they are inside is a great way to move forward because there are people lacking in so much. There’s ignorance inside — for so many, the only life they know is the life they are leading, and they need to feel wanted.”
While lacking the official trappings of a label, Irene Taylor has built a vast network, including ties to New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Chicago Civic Orchestra. In 2012, Sounding Out was introduced, providing support and opportunities for Music In Prisons graduates after release, including studio time and live performances.
“I’m building my team around me at the moment, Ball Or Fall Entertainment,” says MC and vocalist Noble, a Music In Prisons alumni who was unexpectedly released one week after his participation finished. Interested in music, but with no prior experience, he then became more involved with the initiative. Following a debut mixtape, alongside fellow graduates, friends and collaborators there are now plans to release 12 tracks this year, starting with ‘Early In The Morning’.
“It was written in prison, it’s about everyone just being in their moment... one moment from the right person could change your whole life,” Noble tells us. Whether deliberate or not, we can’t help but consider the impact of his initial decision to sign up for Music In Prisons. “I’m learning from the Irene Taylor Trust. Build the infrastructure around you because no one can do nothing on their own. As an artist, I still need a beat. As a producer, you still need someone to rap. And then you need someone to shoot it.”
Our conversation moves to stability and focus. Employment and housing are two of the most significant factors at play in the likelihood of reoffending, alongside long-term relationships. “A lot of people in life, whether you’ve been inside or outside, don’t have the guidance, structure or leader skills to just keep stepping and know what to do. If I didn’t have that structure, then what would I be doing? I don’t know — do you get my point? These projects are vital if they want to reduce crime, and reduce problems in general. It’s not always when people go to prison when the problem starts.”
“I feel like our work is focused on the younger communities because this type of intervention can get them to go, ‘Oh shit, I’ve never been told I’m actually good at anything!’"
Robin Harris heads up Finding Rhythms, another UK music project working in prisons, usually delivering 36-hour programmes across six non-consecutive days. Over a video call from his home in London, Harris tells us how the organisation uses session and touring professionals, and fully embraces modern production techniques, including Ableton and Logic. It’s not long before his work with young offenders in particular comes up.
“I’ve tried to steer more of our projects towards a younger community,” Harris says, explaining this demographic may have most to gain from Finding Rhythms. “I think that the kind of intervention we provide has these huge, triggering effects for young people. Obviously, if we can get them back into work and into an employable future, then that’s great. And if we can get that happening in their 20s as opposed to in their 50s, then there’s potentially 30 to 40 years that they can work, pay tax and be part of society.
“I feel like our work is focused on the younger communities because this type of intervention can get them to go, ‘Oh shit, I’ve never been told I’m actually good at anything!’,” he continues. We ask about the differences between age groups. “Behaviourally it’s more challenging working with younger guys. There’s so much more about them proving themselves amongst their peers, and they bring a lot of that into the workshop environment. So that can be challenging.”
As Harris continues, though, it becomes obvious that there’s no easy answer for different demographics. “It’s a massive subject in terms of how different elements of the prison estate respond to these types of interventions... Let’s take the adults’ prison estate. If you go to an open prison, generally the uptake is pretty good amongst the older community. I think they’ve come to realise that this is quite important, special, different.
“They realise they’re able to process the value of the kind of intervention that we offer, and can physically, mentally manoeuvre themselves to get onto the project,” he says, before reiterating that a variety of factors must also be considered, including the type of facility. “If you work in a remand prison, people are quite chaotic — like any remand community you work with, they are there waiting to be sentenced.”
Since it began in 2012, Finding Rhythms has helped 97% of its 600 participants achieve an optional BTEC certificate in employability skills. Meanwhile, a 2019 audit of Irene Taylor’s Sounding Out programme showed graduates felt improvement in nine areas, including emotional resilience. An earlier evaluation revealed no reoffending nine months after release, and a Social Return On Investment of £4.85 for every £1 spent.
Despite those impressive results, the struggle for legitimacy is real. In 2013, the National Offender Management Service identified a lack of good-quality research on the impact of arts projects with UK offenders. We approached the Ministry of Justice, which confirmed an absence of widespread data. Until then, support for such initiatives will remain mixed, as is reflected by the ongoing emphasis on outdated policies. In 2019, PM Boris Johnson promised 10,000 more prison places, not investment in futures. Phrases like ‘up- skilling’ were absent from Westminster’s late-January announcement of an additional £70million for crime. And the party line becomes even clearer when you consider the widespread lack of central funding, meaning organisations delivering these services largely rely on charitable donations or private investment. And even when funding exists, work can still be blocked.
“What really annoys me is every year we have to go back and pitch again. And again... One minute, one year, you have a Reducing Reoffending Officer that’ll say, ‘I get it, this is fantastic. It’s just what the lads need’. The next year, the new guy will say: ‘We just believe that learning how to wallpaper, or strip wallpaper, is what these lads need’,” Harris says of how high staff turnover creates a barrier.
Jake Tily, Creative Programmes Director at Irene Taylor, points to five UK Justice Secretaries in as many years as indicative of similar frustrations. “There has been a huge turnover of people who’ve taken on that role, even in the short time that I’ve worked in the sector. So in terms of embedding long-term change — that’s just not been able to happen.”
COVID-19 has reaffirmed how prison education programmes are not a state priority, no matter what form they take. Those serving sentences have been in near-total lockdown since March 2020, largely confined to cells for 23 hours a day. An exhausting year later, the Ministry of Justice is still figuring out how online learning opportunities can be implemented, leaving third parties to create their own solutions.
Finding Rhythms focused on remote learning with ex-prisoners and young people at risk of offending. Irene Taylor expanded community services and developed two initiatives for prisons; music appreciation and emotional connection through shared playlists, and collaborative songwriting through correspondence between professional musicians and writers behind bars, with words and arrangements turned into professionally-produced music on CD. InHouse increased support for artists after release and launched a print title, Aux magazine. Delivered to 2,000 prison residents, articles include tempo explainers, practice tips and social commentary.
At the time of writing, there’s no confirmation of when face-to-face provision can return, but the aims of these projects, and their validity, should resonate more than ever: we’ve all spent months considering the value of life, individuality, art and creative practice, not to mention what lack of freedom and stimulation does to wellbeing, mental health, and our ability to cope. Changing lives and aiding reintegration through creativity, using music as the medium, sounds like a no-brainer, then. And if that creates talented MCs, songwriters and producers, it’s a win-win.