Music Australia News

Songbirds Inside Prison Walls

Johnny Cash performing for inmates at Folsom Prison in California in 1968
Scarlett Di Maio
| June 20, 2018

A couple of months ago we looked into Songs from the Inside, just one of many of arts programs established across Australia with a mission to bridge the gap between the life inside prison and the one beyond the walls. Even though there have been some successful arts and education programs in NSW prisons, many have recently lost their funding due to cuts in prison education provision.

Songbirds is a recent project of the Community Restorative Centre (CRC), facilitating songwriting and arts workshops in Sydney and regional prisons, as well as workshops in the community for post-release inmates.

Based on successful overseas programs such as Jail Guitar Doors, Vox Liminis in the UK and Bread and Roses in the US, Songbirds sends successful contemporary songwriters and performers into a prison environment in order to share their skills and mentor prisoners.

When inmates are released from prison, Songbirds provides the program participants with the ability to continue to connect with artists and musicians in the community, as well as being guided into a wide variety of free courses and continuing studies.

Murray Cook, coordinator of the program, is a musician, songwriter and performer who has four decades of experience touring internationally with bands such as Midnight Oil, Mental as Anything, Warumpi Band, Mixed Relations and Leah Purcell. He has also taught music at Long Bay Correctional Centre for 21 years.

According to the CRC, program participants have long reported that getting involved in music and art programs on the inside has enabled them to cope with life in prison, as well as giving them valuable life and vocational skills. The point of difference with programs like Songbirds is that it continues these valuable programs post-release. Programs like these also provides a chance for inmates to connect or reconnect with family and loved ones via their songs, which receive radio airplay on 2SER and Koori Radio.

The Songbirds program has recently expanded to far western NSW in Broken Hill and Wilcannia, with their first successful workshops running last week at both Broken Hill Correctional Centre and in the Loft at the Community Restorative Centre.

CRC is the leading NGO in NSW providing specialist support to people affected by the criminal justice system, with a particular emphasis on the provision of post-release programs for people with multiple and complex needs on release from custody. The organisation has over 65 years of specialist experience in this area and currently operates transitional, post-release and family projects across seven sites in NSW. In the last two years, CRC has started recognising the centrality of arts and music programs in contributing to building alternative pathways for people post-release.

According to CRC, research asserts that in order to build meaningful pathways into the community, individuals who have experienced multiple episodes of imprisonment must also be given the opportunity to build an identity narrative that exists entirely outside of a criminal justice setting. For many people in prison with histories defined by limited opportunities, music and arts are a critical part of this pathway.

When we chatted with Dr Mindy Sotiri, the Program Director of CRC, she explained that “there is a levelling out between people when it comes to playing music together. When you are writing a song together it doesn’t matter what else is going on in your life. It doesn’t matter if you have been to prison. It doesn’t matter if you are a Correctional Officer or Social Worker. What matters are the stories that we make, and the music that we create.  The talent inside our prisons is immense…and everybody in prison has a story to tell”.

The US and UK already has a track record of running substantial community-led arts programs that seek to support the development of high quality creative works inside prisons, as well as build genuine creative pathways outside of the criminal justice system. Let’s hope that Australia follows suit and successful music programs like Songbirds are continued to be funded in the future.

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