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Familiar Stories from Distant Voices

Could songwriting workshops be the holy grail of rehabilitation for those caught up in the criminal justice system? Joanna Moorhead investigates.

The music I’m listening to as I write this is a jaunty tune, with a lively guitar score and the smooth voice of folk musician Kris Drever. But it’s the words he’s singing that matter the most: ‘I never want my children/to live a life like mine/so I faced my inner demons/one small step at a time…’

It’s a song called The Man I Used To Be; and its writer is a man called Steven Robinson who took part in a songwriting workshop held inside a prison, one of a series run by a Glasgow-based project called Distant Voices. According to those behind the project, the workshops are proving genuinely groundbreaking in enabling people on all sides of the criminal justice system to empathise with one another, and to speak a common – and musical – language.

Distant Voices is part of an organisation called Vox Liminis, which means ‘voice from the threshold’; and hearing the voices from the edges of society is very much what it’s about. ‘We bring together people who’ve committed offences, people who’ve been victims of crime, and prison officers and others who work in prisons and with offenders and ex-offenders, and over three days we write songs together,’ explains Alison Urie, Vox Liminis director.

‘It’s about getting way beyond the mindset of bad people and good people; it’s about everyone finding out how much they’ve got in common, and working from that basis.’

The beauty of the project, says Alison, is that writing songs together creates a temporary community where the normal rules don’t apply, and where people find a way of relating back to their own humanity. ‘This is about much more than art for prisons and prisoners. It can genuinely transform the prison culture – it’s about bringing people together to try something new, on equal terms.’

We are speaking in the whitewashed basement of the Vox Liminis HQ in Glasgow, surrounded by guitars, mixing gear and speakers; this is the setting for regular sessions that bring together many of the people involved in Distant Voices: musicians, ex-prisoners, criminologists, relatives of prisoners, social workers. ‘It’s all about making music, swapping experiences and having fun,’ says Alison.

Songwriting workshops are held in the community as well as in prisons throughout Scotland; the idea is to involve those who’ve been caught up in the wider net of the criminal justice system, such as people who are serving community services orders – they’re often neglected by projects aimed at offenders. The workshops take place across three days and, says Alison, they always start with a lot of difficulties to overcome – especially if they’re being held actually inside a prison. ‘Every workshop starts as an unknown quantity, and there are always a lot of challenges – the space, the noise, people being nervous and unsure and uneasy about what’s going to happen.’

Those taking part include professional musicians: among those who’ve been involved to date are several who regularly headline at festivals in both Scotland and England. As well as Drever, these include Emma Pollock who was a founding member of the band Delgados; Louis Abbott of Admiral Fallow; and folk singer Rachel Sherman. They’re among the artists on Distant Voices’ album, Not Known At This Address; and as well as the music, the CD carries testimonials from the songwriters. They include Steven Robinson, who wrote The Man I Used To Be with Kris Drever at a workshop held at Inverness Prison in July 2017. ‘I’d been on a troubled path for many years and had become very lost,’ says Steven. ‘I knew that my children classed me as the best dad in the world but I had to face the truth about myself. I was broken and hid behind a strong face.’
Or there’s this, from someone identified only as Shuggie, who wrote his song – Never Got to Say Goodbye – with musician Donna Maciocia in HMYOI Polmont at a workshop in November 2016. ‘My dad died earlier this year while I was in prison. I never got to say goodbye to him properly so writing this song felt a bit like that for me.’ Donna, meanwhile, writes that ‘I really admired how committed Shuggie was to seeing the song through from start to finish despite the evident emotional toll it was taking at points. It was clear that this was something she felt compelled to do for her family, for her dad.’

Another track on the album, Frank’s Song, was written by Frank Harrison and Rachel Sermanni. The song, says Frank on the album pullout, is ‘about going from no musical knowledge to playing a gig – the natural high and euphoric happiness music can give you when all the elements come together and create their magic’. Rachel, meanwhile, writes: ‘Working on this project has been one of my most treasured experiences as a songwriter and human being. Writing with Frank, as in every Vox project, revealed to me how all humans are much the same and the stigma that comes from being in prison must continue to be broken down.’

For Fergus McNeill, criminologist at Glasgow University, who’s been involved in Vox Liminis from its conception more than five years ago, this is the heart of the organisation’s philosophy – to break down stigma, which in turn enables rehabilitation. ‘Across the last 20 years or so there’s been a change in our perspective on rehabilitation: instead of just asking what’s working, we’ve started to ask about those people who haven’t reoffended, and what’s been different for them. And one of the things we’ve realised from this work is that it’s all very well changing systems and priorities, but if you don’t change the communities and contexts into which people are being released, you don’t really change anything.’

In other words, you can try to change a person while he or she is in prison; but if they’re faced with social rejection when they’re released, that change in prison will be extremely difficult to build on. ‘It’s about the welcome home that people get – it’s about how others respond to them,’ explains Fergus.

That, he argues, is the beauty of the songwriting workshops: they are levellers, and everyone working in them gains a genuine perspective on everyone else’s story. ‘What music-making does is create an enormous space for reflection on fundamental questions about for example identity, and also requires collaboration and social connection – it’s about sharing your vulnerability, and once you do that you realise that where the other person is sitting, you yourself could be.’ So it’s all about breaking down the ‘us’ and ‘them’ that lies at the heart of the stigma of those who’ve found themselves caught up in the wrong end of the criminal justice system – and that’s the only effective starting-point to truly help people to turn their lives around.

For Steven Robinson, that turnaround was achieved, as the poignant final words of his song The Man I Used to Be reveal. ‘I’m not the man I used to be,’ sings Kris Drever on the album. ‘Gone are the days when all I could see, was myself in the mirror, Trying to break free. But now I’ve broken free….’

The album Not Known at this Address by Distant Voices is out now. For more information on Vox Liminis see www.voxliminis.co.uk

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