Q: Do I need to be good at singing to go on a visit with Sing Inside?
A: Absolutely no singing experience is necessary! While many of our volunteers do sing in choirs, it is certainly not a prerequisite. All you need is enthusiasm and willingness to get involved. The Cambridge singers learn the songs alongside the prison residents, so there is no sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and we are all starting from the same point. We also prepare a piece or two as a choir of Sing Inside volunteers to sing to the audience during the afternoon presentation and this is normally in 2 to 4 parts depending on the distribution of voice parts we have for the visit, but it doesn’t matter if you are not a confident singer as we can make sure you are standing next to someone with more experience. We can provide a copy of this music in advance for anyone who wants to become more familiar with it, and we will rehearse at the briefing meeting the night before as well as during our lunch break on the day so that everyone is comfortable.
Q: What is the outline of the day for a typical visit?
A: Sing Inside visits tend to involve an early start! We meet at the Music Faculty at around 6.30am to get a minibus; all of our prisons are about an hour away. Once we arrive, we have to go through security before having some time to set up, usually in the Chapel area. Once the residents start to arrive, we spend a while chatting to them over tea and coffee. The actual singing workshop typically begins with a warm-up led by one of the Sing Inside team which always entails lots of physical exercises to get everyone moving. During the morning, we aim to learn three or four songs all together before breaking for lunch. The residents have their lunch separately, and we ask the Sing Inside volunteers to bring a picnic lunch; this time is a good opportunity for a snooze, as well as for rehearsing the pieces we will sing together. After lunch, the residents come back to do a final rehearsal before a short, informal performance. Other residents, prison staff and occasionally members of the public are invited to watch, and it is a lovely opportunity for the residents to display their hard work and gain a real sense of satisfaction. The Sing Inside volunteers also perform a piece of two, and sometimes there are individual performances, readings or short talks from the residents, depending on the prison and the occasion. We usually stay for a cup of tea (sometimes we are even treated to mince pies around Christmas!) and hand out certificates to all of the participating residents. Depending on traffic, we aim to be back in Cambridge by about 5pm.
Q: Is it safe/scary to be inside a prison?
A: We are never left alone in the prison and there is always at least one member of staff present when we are leading the workshops. Every resident taking part in the workshop is cleared by prison security to be of minimal risk; residents with a history of violence/assault while in prison are not permitted to take part in our workshops, and the officers always keep a close eye during the day. Rest assured, you are very safe and needn’t be concerned. So far all of our volunteers have had an overwhelmingly positive experience and have not reported feeling frightened! It is perfectly normal to feel apprehensive or intimidated the first time you go into a prison, but these initial feelings usually disappear quickly on realising that there is a warm, welcoming atmosphere.
Q: What kind of questions can I ask a resident?
A: Visitors to prison can sometimes feel apprehensive about chatting to the residents, but there is no need to worry! A great start is to ask if they have done much singing before and what type of music they enjoy. Many of them are keen to chat about the activities they get up to in the prison (eg. woodwork, sport, creative writing), or the academic study that they are pursuing. Sometimes residents choose to bring more personal matters into conversation such as their past, religion and their ambitions for life after release. It is absolutely fine and can be very interesting to engage in conversation about these things, but we would advise you to be aware that these topics are more sensitive. If you feel uncomfortable at any point in a conversation, there are always members of prison staff present who you can talk to, or any of the Sing Inside team can support you. We discuss how to manage communication more extensively at the briefing meeting before each visit, so you can raise anymore questions you might have there.
Q: What can I take into prison?
A: All you need with you inside the prison is a packed lunch and yourself! You can normally put valuables such as phones, keys and passports/ID in a small locker at the prison reception, but anything else you will have to leave on the minibus. Scarves are not allowed into prisons, nor are electrical items, unsealed water bottles or anything sharp. If you need to bring something into the prison for medical reasons (such as an EpiPen), please let us know and we can contact the prison in advance. We can provide you with more detailed information at the briefing prior to our visit, but in general we ask that you bring minimal stuff with you – this considerably speeds up the security process!
Q: What kind of music does Sing Inside do?
A: Pretty much anything you can think of! We try and have a theme for each of our prison visits to provide some structure, but within that we have covered spirituals, folk songs, jazz, pop, Christmas carols and even Stormzy. We aim to prepare three or four songs with the prison residents, and also perform a piece or two as a choir of Sing Inside volunteers which will normally be classical or close-harmony. If you are coming on a visit and have any song suggestions, we are always happy to hear from you!
Q: Will I need to demonstrate / teach any songs by myself?
A: On the whole, members of the Sing Inside committee and/or anyone who has more experience with visits will teach the songs to the entire group. We work this out in advance of the day and try to have a different person leading each song where possible. You will certainly not be forced into doing any musical leading if you don’t want to; enthusiastic, encouraging singing as part of the group is all that is required!
Q: Why should I volunteer with Sing Inside?
A: Our volunteers invariably come out of visits saying that they have been some of the most uplifting and fulfilling experiences they have ever undergone. Each visit demonstrates the amazing power of music to break down barriers and facilitate communication, and the positive changes we see within the residents over the course of the day is tantamount to this. In a time of increasing austerity cuts to the prison sector, rehabilitation and creativity do not receive the attention or budget that they need; the opportunity Sing Inside provides for a creative and expressive outlet, as well as a simple break from the monotony of prison life, is of huge value to the rehabilitative process, building confidence and showing residents the positive things they are capable of achieving. The visits are also very beneficial to us as volunteers: it can be so easy to dehumanise people who have committed crimes, but Sing Inside demonstrates that we all have more in common than we think, and that unity and togetherness are the most powerful way to help people. We meet fascinating people, both residents and other volunteers, and we have great fun singing and chatting together. And if this hasn’t persuaded you, perhaps a more powerful statement can be offered by a resident himself reflecting on a Sing Inside visit:
“It couldn’t possibly have been better. I was treated, by everyone, as a human being. Not one of them talked down to me. Not once did I feel like a prisoner. I had a little private cry at lunchtime.”
We are always looking for more volunteers, so we really hope that you will be keen to get involved and join us on one of our upcoming visits!