Rhythm in prisons - RSA

Rhythm in prisons

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  • Picture of James Crabbe
    James Crabbe
  • Communities
  • Prisons
  • Arts and society

James Crabbe FRSA argues that the universal appeal of music should be used to engage more prisoners, unlock their potential and help open a door to a new life.

The role that prison education plays in supporting rehabilitation, reducing re-offending and reducing the costs of this to the taxpayer is well documented. The Ministry of Justice’s Education and Employment Strategy, published last year emphasised the need to start with prisoners themselves. But what do prisoners want from education that could help them? Most have been failed by the standard education system; 42% have been excluded from school and many have mental health issues. 

Music education in prisons has existed since the mid-nineteenth century, as described in 2010 by Lee in the International Journal of Community Music, but research in the field has historically been sparse. However, in the past 20 years the awareness of music educators to issues of social justice has caused a dramatic increase in research in this area, as well as new initiatives to enable the musical awareness of prisoners to engage others and help themselves.

Choirs in prison were among the earliest examples of engaging prisoners in musical activity, often for religious reasons, although it has been recognised that choral singing had a therapeutic effect on prisoners. As Layer Silber argued in 2005: 

"The choir is a community with rules, relationships and purpose. When located in a prison, it takes on the therapeutic function of providing a protected space for expression and a context for reframing, even when its manifest goal is educational."

More recently, there have been some exciting examples where music in prisons has produced some outstanding results. Pete McPhail is a creative Music Psychotherapist working at HMP Grendon, using improvisation and song-writing produced by the prisoners.  HMP Grendon consists of Democratic Therapeutic Communities (which are also provided at HMPs Dovegate, Gartree, Send and Warren Hill) and provides group-based therapy – including music – within a social setting, promoting positive relationships, personal responsibility and social participation. Such therapeutic communities address a range of prisoner needs including interpersonal relationships, emotional regulation, self-management and psychological wellbeing. The evidence, for example that reviewed by the College of Policing, shows that such an approach is effective.

The Irene Taylor Trust Music in Prisons programme was set up in 1995 in memory of the wife of the late Lord Chief Justice Peter Taylor, who had a personal interest in both prison reform and music. Since 1995 the programme has run projects with over 4,400 participants, to an audience of nearly 21,000 people. Over the course of these projects thousands of pieces of original music have been recorded.

In 2008 the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University published an evaluation of their work over eight projects. It found a reduction in adjudications both during and after the project, an increase in confidence to participate in other educational programmes as well as confirmation that the projects can play a role in fulfilling the prison service’s pathways to reducing re-offending. The Trust has since been implementing Musician in Residence placements to complement and sustain the impact of their intensive projects. Their first placement began in May 2013 with musician James Dey, who on a weekly basis runs Rock School accredited courses, a guitar group and an open mic session.

Finding Rhythms is a more recent charity founded by Creative Director Robin Harris and runs music-making courses in prisons with professional recording engineers and equipment.  Over the course of sessions totalling 36 hours, participants are challenged to write, compose and record their own albums of original music. Each course is led by a professional musician with the aim of fostering a producer-artist relationship with participants, rather than a teacher-student relationship. Finding Rhythms has worked in 24 UK prisons, helped 455 leaners in prison, and 264 BTEC accredited awards have been made. The 2019 Koestler Award winners were announced in August 2019 and 21 of those winners produced music tracks that were made on Finding Rhythms projects. Because the prisoners compose their own words to their songs, this helps in their understanding and appreciation of English.Further work will engage ex-prisoners on release, as well as those young people in the community at risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Evidence from all these music initiatives shows that the institutional behaviour of prisoners improves, including reduced adjudications and acts of self-harm. Surveys of staff and prisoners also show that they both report higher quality of life than in comparable establishments. In addition, there is evidence the risk of reoffending is significantly reduced. As Rachel O'Brien wrote for the RSA in 2018: 

"productivity in relation to prisons is hugely dependent on how one group of human beings interact with others. We need a service that enables these connections to flourish."

Music is an excellent vehicle for this to happen; it provides an approach where ‘education’ is not seen by prisoners as something that has failed them, but where they can develop and initiate projects that will give them confidence and a platform for the future. The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) has a National Quality Improvement Practice Development Group for Marginalised Learners, which includes those in prisons but more resource is needed. This work needs to be recognised and supported by the Government in more prisons, increasingly difficult after years when support for funding arts interventions has waned. The Ministry of Justice should take note that a relatively small amount of funding for music and the arts in prisons reaps considerable rewards for both prisoners and staff, with great potential for reducing reoffending and helping reduce the skills gap in the UK.


Professor James Crabbe FRSA is a Supernumerary Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford University, an Associate Member of the Prisoner Learning Alliance, and a member of the ETF National Quality Improvement Practice Development Group for Marginalised Learners.

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  • I was very interested in this article. Music and the arts in general, whether fine art, textiles, poetry and music etc are all essential to our well-being, evidenced in this writing. The RSA needs to pressurise government for further opportunities in these activities at every level of schooling and not just as extra curriculum activities. Instead we are seeing a massive reduction in all the arts. Society will then benefit in the long run. Thank you for sharing this with us.