Our visit to HMP Chelmsford on 23 September 2019, was my first time with Sing Inside and my first time in a prison. I found the whole experience very positive, uplifting and worthwhile.
I met Maisie, Sing Inside's chief executive, and the group at the prison having had a briefing over the phone prior from Maisie prior to the day, talking through how the day goes and what to expect. Going through security was thought-provoking but once inside I found the atmosphere friendly and relaxed. As this is a remand prison, most prisoners are waiting to be tried.
The group of workshop participants was already assembled in the large room used as the chaplaincy when we arrived. We started with coffee, and spent some time just chatting and getting to know each other. These were vulnerable prisoners so did not often get the chance to socialise or spend time in this area of the prison.
The music sessions started with some work on rhythm in a way that made the activities easily accessible to everyone in the group, followed by some tricky tongue-twisters. In no time at all we were singing rounds - proving that everyone can singing multiple parts even without thinking about it! - before moving on to some well-known songs and some simple harmonies. The session was really enjoyable for everyone and it was clear how much the prisoners were getting out of the music, the company,c and the atmosphere.
There as a general lock-down at lunchtime, and the prison officers offered to show us around some of the wings and see the cells first-hand. It was sobering to see the size of the cells for either a single bed or bunks, and the open toilet without any privacy. Prisoners often spend 23 hours locked up, and it made me appreciate what they might get out of Sing Inside workshops even more than before.
The afternoon session provided a chance to perform the songs we learned in the morning to a small group of other residents and prison officers, and was well-received (though not without much ribbing of the performers by their friends!). These friends and staff then all joined in for some repetition of the songs we’d sung - and hopefully we might see some of them join in for the next workshop.
The men were very keen to be involved in the day’s music making and took it all seriously. It was a chance for the men on remand to socialise with each other, and to have a break from the monotony of time in their cells. There were also some very accomplished musicians in the group, one of whom took over the piano playing half way through the day! They were unfailingly polite, were quick to make us tea and coffee, and to ensure that we were looked after.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed the day, as did the prison residents. I found it an incredible eye-opener on many levels as it challenged many of my preconceptions. The role of music-making and singing in building self-confidence and bringing people together was most powerful.
Anne Lyons, Oxford volunteer