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Bible Alive is a Catholic scripture magazine which draws its strength, inspiration and direction from the liturgical cycle. Latest edition out now.

Lifting the Prison Blues

A little bit of music in a prison can go a long way, Joanna Moorhead discovers.

It’s a weekday afternoon jamming session, and the all-female band are giving it their all. At the back of the room the drummer is a 20-something with long, blonde hair; in front of her is the guitarist, a woman in her forties. And in front, kneeling on the ground as she intones her lyrics, is the vocalist, all in black with a baseball cap pulled low across her forehead.

They’re playing Tracy Chapman’s She’s Got Her Ticket, and it’s particularly apt in this setting: ‘She’s got her ticket/I think she’s going to use it/I think she’s going to fly away.’ Because this isn’t a pub or a recording studio, it’s a prison chapel. We’re inside HMP Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire, a women’s prison; this is a regular meeting of the inmates’ music group, Changing Tunes, and for the women who take part it can often feel like the only chance they get to soar above the prison bars, and experience a kind of spiritual freedom.

The 12 or so prisoners in the group are led by music therapist Fran Key, who’s been running the group for six years. A quiet woman with a pixie bob, she leads the session without dominating it: there’s plenty of opportunity for the prisoners to put forward their ideas about what songs are performed, and who plays what instrument. Fran has a big folder with the lyrics of hundreds of tracks: others this afternoon include Rod Stewart’s Handbags and the Gladrags, and James Arthur’s Impossible. I’m part of the chorus, sharing my songsheet with a young woman of 25 who’s serving an eight-week term. She has two young children aged four and six; when Fran suggests we sing Pharrell Williams’s Happy, tears well up in my neighbour’s eyes and she says she couldn’t stay in the room for that, as it reminds her too much of her little boy. Another song is quickly chosen; everyone in this room understands the agony of missing family, particularly children.

The young woman – let’s call her Charlie, which isn’t her name – says she’s come along to three or four Changing Tunes sessions, and they’ve made a huge difference to her time at the prison. ‘It gives you a real lift, and there aren’t many ways you get a lift when you’re in prison,’ she says. ‘The songs are sometimes sad, and they’re sometimes fun – and it’s always good being part of a group, and enjoying the moment. ‘Another woman says Changing Tunes is the high point of her week. ‘Being in prison is lonely, and boring, and you feel empty a lot of the time. This is the one time in the week when I feel properly connected, and as though I’m doing something that’s simply to enjoy.’

Enjoyment and fun aren’t high on the list of what a prison seeks to provide: but the punishment, Fran reminds me, is in being separated from family and friends, and unable to make decisions about your own life. ‘The sessions enable women to have a go at playing musical instruments, and to sing the lyrics, both as soloists and as part of a chorus,’ she says. ‘It gives them opportunities that are not easily available elsewhere in prison – like the chance to work as part of a team, and the chance to communicate with one another in a different way. It also gives them opportunities to make choices, about what to play and what song to perform. And the women help one another – I see supportive relationships being created, in order to make the music work. The sessions bring commodities that are incredibly rare into the prison – beauty, joy, escapism, and peace. I feel incredibly privileged to do this work, because many of the people in here have had so much stacked against them – many of them are real heroes.’

The music isn’t restricted to the sessions: it seeps out of the weekly jams to infect the whole prison. ‘Sometimes we take the music to the wings – we form a small group and move around the prison,’ says Fran.

Changing Tunes runs music workshops in 16 prisons in Britain, and would like to run them in more. It grew out of a faith background, having been founded three decades ago, in 1988, by a musician called Richard Pendlebury who played the guitar during religious services in prisons, and realised how much of a difference music could make. Richard – who’s now an Anglican priest – says the prisoners loved the music, and were very keen when he decided to set up a separate music group. ‘People said they felt they were out of prison when they were in our sessions. They felt it gave them a space where they weren’t being judged, and where they could have a bit of fun.’

What Richard realised, says Changing Tunes’ chief executive Lizzie Bond, was that making music gave prisoners the chance to engage with something life-enhancing and different. ‘To him, it seemed very much like faith in action,’ she says. ‘We’re a Christian organisation, although prisoners of all denominations and none are welcome at our sessions: and what we aim to do is bring some hope into the lives of people who desperately need it. I know as a human being and as a Christian how important hope is. A lot of prisoners have been told they are rubbish and what they do is rubbish, and they believe they’ll never be able to do anything worthwhile with their lives. Making music gives them something to be proud of, something they can do and something that raises their self-esteem – it’s so simple, it’s really low-cost, but it can make a huge difference.’

What makes Changing Tunes almost unique in the prison system is that it provides prisoners with continuity: after release, those who took part in sessions inside are invited to carry on attending similar workshops on the outside. ‘Almost all the relationships people form in prison are cut off when they’re released,’ explains Lizzie. ‘But what we’ve found is that resettling into the community is made easier if you have some people you can talk to who knew what your life in prison was like.’ Her point is reflected in participants’ reoffending rates: the national average is that 46% of released prisoners get into trouble again, but among people who’ve taken part in the Changing Tunes programme, the figure is just 12%.

One of the most exciting aspects of Changing Tunes is that it gives prisoners and ex-prisoners the chance to showcase their work in regular concerts, both inside prison and after release.

And to mark the charity’s 30th anniversary, musicians Billy Bragg and Frank Turner have joined forces with a group of ex-prisoners to make an album, downloadable from the charity’s website. ‘It’s brilliant to get the backing of big names like Billy and Frank,’ says Lizzie. ‘And they’ve been very impressed with the musical abilities of the ex-prisoners they’ve been working with. Changing Tunes can bring music into the lives of people who’ve not got much experience of it, but equally it can help build on talents prisoners have, giving them skills they can use when they’re out of prison. It’s such a simple idea, and it makes such a huge difference to people’s lives.’

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