A first visit
Recently signed up to volunteer with us, but wondering what it feels like to join us for the first time? Alison, one of our volunteers, writes about her experiencing joining us in HMP Chelmsford for the first time last month.
I was inspired to become involved with Sing Inside after hearing a talk by Ted Smyth, a board member of the charity. Combining choral singing with my interest in the prison system, what could be a better way of volunteering?
I signed up and the first invitation came, a visit to HMP Chelmsford. The full instructions, with do’s and don’ts, seemed quite daunting and I was pleased there would be a Zoom briefing and group introduction the day before. It was refreshing – and a surprise - to find that most of the group were in their twenties, with only two of us representing
the ‘oldie’ population. Maisie, our group leader, ran the briefing with the confidence that she showed throughout the visit, answering our questions/concerns and giving reassuring instructions.
A perfect bright, sunny morning dawned and, totally out of character, I was at the station a full 45 minutes early. Maisie and the others arrived in good time for the 7.30 train and we spent a happy journey having breakfast and introducing ourselves.
We had been warned about ‘airport-style’ security on entering the prison and we put ‘forbidden items’ in a small locker. A slight kerfuffle over names and IDs and then we were through, escorted to the prison prayer space where the session was to be held.
A large and airy room, with lots of light from the glass ceiling. We met one of the prison chaplains, who showed us the all-important kitchenette and cloakroom for our use.
After a brief wait, the residents came in, together with the prison guard who was to stay with us for the session. Chat and name tags followed, with widely varying moods among the residents. Two particularly cheery souls made sure everyone had water to hand and, later, coffee.
First the warm-up and the degree of engagement in the group was remarkable from the start. Total attention to Maisie and the musical games that required concentration. Then onto learning the songs, with two of our Sing Inside number impressively able to sight-read the piano accompaniments. We learned three – as someone remarked, all weather-related: A Lovely Day; Here Comes the Sun; A Wonderful World. All well-known, positive
melodies to match or lift the mood of the residents.
Maisie led with the lyrics on her pre-prepared flipcharts and firmly corrected any
note mistakes: her standard was not going to be compromised! Suddenly the first surprise of the day: one of the residents asked to sing a section on his own. Hats off for bravery and enthusiasm! Applauded and encouraged by all. As the session progressed, others followed suit, requesting to sing a section solo, or in a smaller group. I had not expected this level of commitment in the group and nor had the other volunteers experienced it before.
Another surprise was the musical education of the men: one had sung in a large community choir and performed solos in big choral works; one had been in a band; another’s primary school learned hymns every Monday for Mass on Wednesday. Next came lunch break and another revelation: the prison coffee shop for visitors with vocational barista training for residents. Affectionately dubbed ‘Fletch’s Caff’ (Porridge having been filmed here), it was a space to rival any high street chain for ambience and
we took our packed lunches in the sunny and pleasant courtyard, the only reminder of the prison location being the high, unbroken walls and barbed wire on the top. Who knew that we would be offered a choice of coffee types in a prison café? And my cappuccino was one of the best I’ve had.
The break was lengthy and the wait for the group to return even longer, owing to staff shortages. Eventually they clattered back in, but we had time only to finish the last task of the day – a quick runthrough, deciding on soloists and trios at various points and finally the all-important climax of the session, the recording of the songs. We grouped together, by this stage at ease with each other, and sang our hearts out. A mood of elation and satisfaction swept the room: we’d done it! All three songs learned and recorded, and new solo voices discovered without prompting. Just time for the residents to fill in their ‘happy sheets’ before we rushed to catch our train, the thanks and goodbyes said with smiles and appreciation all round.
Maisie asked if I would volunteer for another visit after my experience. There was only one possible answer: in a heartbeat.