Where We Work
There are 117 prisons in England and Wales. The category of a prison: A, B, C or D denotes its level of security. Category A is High Security and D is Low Security (“open prisons”). Most “closed” prisons are category B/C. Thirteen prisons are run by private companies and the rest by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (“HMPPS”).
Different prisons have different functions. “Local” prisons, hold people whilst they are on remand, awaiting trial, sentencing, or release. They are the penal equivalent to “A&E” and tend to be very challenging. “Training” prisons, hold people serving longer sentences, in their last few years. They run prison “industries” and the population works to prepare them for life outside. People with no right to remain in the UK are held in Foreign National Prisons and are, generally, deported. Several prisons just house people with sexual convictions. Children are sentenced to “Secure Training Units” (STC’s). The age of criminal responsibility in the UK is 10 (the lowest in Europe). Young Adults under 25, are often held in “Youth Offender Institutions” (YOI’s). Women have separate prisons. Five percent of the prison population is female.
A Category B local prison
Population: c1,000 men: 50% sentenced; 20% on remand; 30% on recall
Architecture: Victorian (built 1849)
Managed by: HMPPS
Comment: Birmingham, like most local prisons, faces challenges because it has a transient population: people awaiting trial, sentencing, transfer to another prison or release. Most stays are very short. This creates a level of anxiety and instability that has to be managed by both staff and men.
The Choir : Inside Out
Directed by: Pete and Gina
Distinction: The longest running Beating Time choir, running continuously since June 2015. The strongest link with family members with monthly family days.
Highlights: Double Bill Concert with Birmingham’s homeless “Choir With No Name”, performing from the hub of the jail – the sound radiated down 3 wings.
2019 UpStart Concert, organised by the UpStart entrepreneurs who performed and pitched to (and catered for) a 100 strong audience of employers, mentors, peers and family.
Ethos: A place of consistent, creative, calm in a place of profound uncertainty.
Our Song: “Daydream Believer” – hang on to your dreams and believe in the future!
Challenge: Building up a strong group identity in such a transient environment. Well known, established Music Directors and supportive officers, are key.
A YOI near Wolverhampton sharing a site with HMP Featherstone
Population: c580 young men aged 18-21
Architecture: Modern (built 1991)
Managed by: HMPPS
Comment: In Brinsford we work with young men on the Care Unit, a separate wing for those who self-harm, self-isolate or have learning and behavioural issues. It is deliberately a small group.
The Choir: Chained Harmony
Directed by: Claire and Katy
Distinction: The first of our groups to write and record an album.
The first Group to be awarded BTECs for their learning through music.
Highlights: Concert at which Chained Harmony performed their own songs confidently to friends, family, peers and staff – and received their BTEC certificates.
Ethos: A safe space in which to express yourself.
Our Song: John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. At first glance an unusual choice for a group of very young men, but it speaks of freedom, the outdoors and going back to somewhere that feels like home.
Challenge: The fragility of the members and short sentences mean consistency and continuity are vital but difficult to achieve.
An open female prison in rural Kent, near Maidstone
Population: c100 women over the age of 18 preparing for release.
Architecture: A Grade II Listed manor house and farm dating back to Jacobean times.
Managed by: HMPPS
Comment: ESP is a tiny prison with fantastic facilities. To prepare women for release many have day jobs and spend some time at home with their families. Our role is all about creating the confidence needed to re-join and find a place in society. Some women have served long sentences and the transition is hard.
The Choir: The Stone Maidens
Directed by: Amelia
Distinction: Our newest choir (2019) and our only female group.
Highlights: A performance and open mic night for over 50 of the residents in December 2019.
A Christmas concert and craft fair for the HMP East Sutton Park WI and their fellow members in the West Kent Women’s Institute Federation.
Ethos: Championing strong creative women, as a group and as individuals. The Stone Maidens are about belonging and believing in better. We have some very talented musicians.
Our Song: “Waving Through A Window” captures the spirit of the Stone Maidens. It describes what it feels like to be unheard and unseen, to fall in a forest where no one notices but powerfully demands that we “start believing that we belong…”
Challenge: It’s busy! People out working, visiting family, doing jobs round the prison and the farm, getting everyone together is a challenge – one that requires individuals to step up, fill the space, be their biggest, best selves.
A Category C, training and resettlement prison just outside Wolverhampton. It shares a site with HMP/YOI Brinsford.
Population: c640 men serving 4-10 years
Architecture: Modern (built 1976)
Managed by: HMPPS
Comment: Featherstone has a stable population and regime. It has many workshops and a strong focus on employment.
The Choir: The Feathertones
Directed by: Pete
Distinction: A sister choir to Inside Out in Birmingham – men are often moved to Featherstone from Birmingham. Choir provides rare continuity in this small part of the prison system.
Talented singers and songwriters, like Luke and Fitz. Now released, they are still making music with us in the community with FREE SPIRITZ.
Highlights: A Gold Koestler Award for their rendition of Lean On Me.
A National Prison Radio broadcast which featured interviews with members as well as recordings of their songs.
Ethos: A band of exceptionally talented artists getting creative at the end of a day’s work
Our Song: “Blinded By Your Grace” by Stormzy. This choir is in a better place, no longer afraid and filled with grace!
A Foreign Nationals prison in Maidstone town centre, Kent.
Population: c600 sentenced men with no right to remain in the UK: most will be deported at the end of their sentence. The majority stay less than a year.
Architecture: Victorian, built in 1819
Comment: Maidstone is the most diverse population we work with. However, it is also the most cohesive choir. It is as if, without a common culture or code, people have, in difficult circumstances, found a way to live together that works. However, deportation brings another dimension to prison. Mental health is even more challenged as people often face being permanently separated from family in the UK and/or building new lives in countries where they may not have lived since they were children.
The Choir: The Maidstone Jammers
Directed by: Dom
Distinction: The choir speak at least 10 languages between them at any point in time
They have won the hearts of some very special people: Richard and Amicia Oldfield (their trust, The Henry Oldfield Trust, has funded this choir since 2016), have sung with the men and provided genuine friendship and support. Elizabeth and Fernando Jimenez have helped many of the South American members stay in touch with their families, even after deportation.
Highlights: Phenomenal songwriters and musicians: The Jammers is frequently home to gifted instrumentalists and singers. They have created moments of pure magic, spontaneously weaving together the heart-wrenching folk songs of the Roma and Flamenco traditions: songs of love, loss and separation.
A Koestler Platinum Award for Nick’s song “Closer”.
Ethos: Music is our common language, through our songs we share and make sense of our common experience.
Our Song: “Simple Man” by Graham Nash. It is impossible to sing this song without feeling our own humanity and fragility, the universality of love and our dependence on other people. “I am a simple man and I sing a simple song. I just want to hold you, I don’t want to hold you down. I can’t make it alone”.
Challenge: Language – some members.
A Category B prison, near Rugby in the East Midlands.
Population: c665 men over the age of 21 convicted of sexual offences serving 4 or more years.
Architecture: Modern (2001).
Managed by: G4S
Comment: The words “sexual offences” prompt a visceral response of horror in many. We understand this. We are clear that our role is to support all living in our prisons on the path to rehabilitation; to promote understanding – not excuse. We do not differentiate between crimes when offering our services.
The Choir: Harmony on the Hill
Directed by: Pete and Gina
Distinction: The Prison’s Governor and Deputy Governor started our Choir (Inside Out) when they were at HMP Birmingham. They were keen to replicate it when they moved to Rye Hill.
It is our largest choir. The nature of the prison means many are serving longer sentences so our choir has an older, more stable membership. The musical standard is consequently high: the members relish singing, performing and recording songs in three-part harmony.
Highlights: Gold Koestler Award: for their rendition of Consider Yourself.
A “Sleep Out” and concert to raise money for the homeless choir “Choir With No Name”.
Our most regular Blogger, Ophrys is a member of Harmony on the Hill.
Dignifying Prison Funerals with their voices.
Ethos: We are grateful for the opportunity to mentally be transported out of our environment every week, we are ambitious and determined to contribute whenever we can.
Our Song: Perhaps our most ambitious song to date has been “Mr Blue Sky” together with full choral finale. Although, when the Gov shows up it’s, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”!
Challenge: In terms of the running of the choir, this prison presents fewer challenges as the population is so stable. However, mental health issues are more in evidence: Harmony on the Hill provides considerable help with improving and maintaining general wellbeing.