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St Patrick's Day at HMP Woodhill

On Thursday 17 March, St Patrick's Day, a team of nine Sing Inside volunteers from Oxford visited to HMP Woodhill to deliver a day singing Irish songs chosen in advance by people in prison. In this blog one of our volunteers and the accompanist for the day, Catherine, reflects on her experience volunteering with us.

We arrived early in the morning to leave plenty of time to make our way through security. On entering the car park, the high walls of the prison were immediately striking, and I will admit to feeling a little apprehensive.

When we got to in our workshop space, around 25 participants had already arrived and were talking excitedly. It was a much bigger group than we were expecting. I had learnt from the news that during the pandemic, the prison residents at HMP Woodhill were kept in their cells for twenty-three hours a day to limit transmission. As restrictions eased, they were allowed out for two hours. Even now, when all remaining pandemic restrictions have been eased in England, they are still only allowed out of their cells for three hours. In light of all this, it was particularly moving to see them all enjoying each other’s company so enthusiastically.

For the workshop, we had chosen three songs from a list of requests from the prison residents, all in-keeping with the St. Patrick’s Day theme. The Fields of Athenry was especially popular and pertinent, given the relevance of the lyrics to many of the singers. The participants, most of whom seemed to have a personal link with Ireland, had also been given non-alcoholic Irish coffee with their breakfast that morning, for which they were very grateful.

We started the day with tea and coffee and chatted to some of the residents. It transpired that many of the men were meeting for the first time, and they were very eager to get to know one another. Some of the men talked to me about their families, and about the songs they were particularly looking forward to. At first, it was a little tricky to get the whole group to follow our lead with the warm-ups (and to stop chatting!), but everyone was very friendly and good-natured, and at the promise of more chatting in another coffee break soon, they quickly became more engaged! The musical leadership training that we had all received from Clover a few weeks previously had provided us all with a good repertoire of fun and engaging vocal exercises and activities. The round ‘Ah, Poor Bird,’ which we sang after the next coffee break, went down particularly well, so much so that we decided to include it in our concert programme later on.

After the second singing session where we learned ‘Danny Boy,’ the prison residents left for lunch. One of the volunteers in the prison chaplaincy took us into the gardens for our packed lunches. The gardens were fantastic – there was a pond, with some ducks and moorhens, and a bridge over the water – but eerily empty, as we were the only ones outside. Due to staff shortages, the prison residents rarely had the opportunity to enjoy this space.

The lunch break was longer than we expected, but I enjoyed chatting to the staff at the prison chaplaincy while we were waiting for the participants to return. They talked about their past, and how they had ended up working in the prison. It had been clear from the workshop that the prison chaplain had a very good relationship with the residents – they respected and listened to him, and he very much treated each of the men as his equal.

After the participants returned, we prepared to start the performance. Many of the prison staff had come to watch, including the Governor. The Chaplain had organised a video clip of the Most Revd Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had recorded a blessing for the residents at HMP Woodhill to celebrate St Patrick’s Day. The blessing was accompanied by a flute playing the melody from ‘The Fields of Athenry,’ one of the songs we were about to perform. The performance had a great energy, and the men really were giving it their all. Some of the more confident participants sang solo for some of the verses, and they were very warmly encouraged by the other residents. Once we had sung everything we had prepared, the prison chaplain gestured to me to begin the piano accompaniment for ‘The Fields of Athenry’ again, and he joined the participants for an encore performance of the song, with his arms around the prison residents. This performance in particular was a clear demonstration of the power of music to bring people together and to break down social barriers.

After the performance, we spoke to residents about their experiences and how they found the workshop. The responses were overwhelmingly positive – the men I spoke to said they had enjoyed every moment, and there was nothing they would change about the day.

Watching the prison residents return to their cells at the end of the day, I felt a curious mix of emotions. I was happy that we had all shared such a wonderful experience together, but sad in the knowledge that this was a rare opportunity for these men, and that our experiences after the workshop, the volunteers leaving the prison and the men returning to their cells, would be so different. Saying goodbye to one another after such a moving experience together is an something that will stay with me for a very long time.

I am very grateful to Sing Inside for providing me with such an eye-opening and special experience. As prisons continue to ease pandemic restrictions, I hope that more people, prison residents and volunteers, can benefit from this extraordinary experience.

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