Helping prisoners dance to a new rhythm

For those who spend time at Her Majesty’s pleasure, the punishment is likely to continue long after they walk back out through the prison gates.

Sat, 1 October 2016 | By Colin Cottell

FROM OCTOBER'S RECRUITER MAGAZINE

For those who spend time at Her Majesty’s pleasure, the punishment is likely to continue long after they walk back out through the prison gates. 

According to research by employability service Working Links, 75% of employers admit to discriminating against ex-offenders, with 10% saying they would never hire one. 

While training courses are available in prison, the experience of David, who was released in 2015 after serving three years for drug offences, left a lot to be desired. “Some courses, like labourer courses, are forced upon you,” he says. So when, in early 2015, the governor of HMP Springhill circulated a leaflet about a short music course, although “sceptical because I hadn’t done music before”, he decided to give it a go. “Music is very popular in prison, but this isn't the type of course you would normally expect,” he says.

The course was run by Finding Rhythms, a charity set up in 2012 by Emily Vermont, its executive director, and operational/creative director Robin Harris. The course aims to tap into the transformative power of music to change lives “by creating a more engaged, employable generation of prisoners”, says Vermont. Each course is run as a 36-hour project led by two professional musicians and a sound engineer working with a group of prisoners to produce a professional quality album of new music. 

Vermont says so far, 160 prisoners have completed the course across 13 UK prisons. This is set to rise to 200 prisoners and 14 prisons by the end of the year. The charity’s work is based on the blueprint of the ‘Scrubs Sessions’, a project led and produced by Harris while working at HMP Wormwood Scrubs in 2006. 

Although evidence for its success is mainly anecdotal, David is in no doubt of its effectiveness. He has just launched a business with his brother selling football socks to semi-professional and professional footballers, something he says he would never have done without Finding Rhythms. “Definitely not,” he says. “I never had the confidence before, but the course has given me the drive.” It has also led him to set his sights higher. “It taught me I didn’t have accept being happy with any job but I could do something that I enjoyed.” 

Vermont says one of the secrets to Finding Rhythms’ success is the professional way it works and the exacting standards it sets. “We work as you would in a workplace. You have a job to do, and you have to produce a set number of tracks a day. We only use professional musicians working in the industry,” Vermont adds. Indeed, the high quality of music produced led well-known singer/songwriter Cerys Matthews to describe Our Geordie the Gambler, a track from Finding Rhythms’ first album All Mod Cons, as “my favourite folk track of the year”. 

David, who completed other courses in prison, including personal training and labouring, agrees that this is one way the course stood out. “You didn’t feel you were in prison. It gave you a taste of life outside and what you could achieve if you put your mind to something positive. It gave me belief there was life outside prison,” he says.

The project also aims to combat one of the major barriers to ex-prisoners finding work after leaving prison: a lack of soft skills. Vermont says the course emphasises the importance of basic skills such as punctuality and arriving prepared. Course participants are also expected to spend 14 hours of their own time working on the project. This could be writing lyrics, or writing to a local journalist telling them about the project, she says. “These are all skills that are transferable to the workplace,” says Vermont.

One of the benefits of the course is that participants can work towards a qualification, she says – the BTEC Supporting Employability and Personal Effectiveness (Certificate in Employability Skills). This is equivalent to a quarter of a GCSE, she adds, “quite a substantial achievement” for prisoners, 49% of whom don’t have any qualifications at all. To date, 96% of course participants have gained the qualification. “It is good for their CV. It also gives them confidence and motivation to take other qualifications, and to develop other skills,” says Vermont. 

Participants learn other skills too, such as “how to settle disputes appropriately”, without resorting to threatening language or violence. “It’s about raising self-awareness, recognising your own skills, and which ones need to be developed,” she explains. It also teaches prisoners leadership skills and how to listen actively. At the end of the course there is a debrief. “They start to realise ‘I wanted to be involved and if I had conducted myself in a slightly different way I would have seen this result’. These are the type of realisations that people come across of their own accord.” 

David agrees that participating in Finding Rhythms gave him valuable skills, such as “getting on with a mixture of people and personalities who you hadn’t seen before in prison”. It also helped him understand the importance and the discipline involved in working towards goals. “We were required to record two songs a day,” he says. Despite having no formal music training or experience of a recording studio, as one of the only participants who could sing, “I ended up singing on most of the tracks”, he says. 

Vermont says that, as a group, prisoners are challenging. “Quite often the prisoners we work with, who are chosen by the prison staff, are classified as ‘hard to reach’. They are not engaged in other forms of education or training. They might be spending a lot of time locked up in their cells, they might have had a bad experience with education, be suffering from depression or drug dependency. Music is that thing that really captivates people.”

The charity works with a wide array of prisoners, with different backgrounds and skills, “from some who had a settled career in the banking industry, put in prison for fraud, to someone with no work experience or qualifications. What we do find is that everybody makes progress on the course”, says Vermont. 

Being small means Finding Rhythms doesn’t have the resources to follow up on individual prisoners or produce comprehensive statistics. Vermont says the charity is, however, currently trying to get funds “to do a more in-depth study of re-offending rates and how many participants got into and stayed in employment”.

“Of the people we have kept in touch with, some have got into work usually with the help of a probation officer, while others have set up their own businesses, such as a clothing business,” she says. 

The size of the charity, which is made up of Vermont, the only full-time employee, and two part-time staff, has also meant putting on the back burner plans to develop close links with employers who might be interested in taking on Finding Rhythms’ clients. For the same reason, Vermont says a proposed arrangement with Timpson, the high street cobbler and well known for its policy of employing ex-prisoners, to hold interviews at the end of each course never materialised. 

However, now that the charity is better established, Vermont says it is in “a stronger position to revisit those ideas”. The charity will also look to work closely with other charities working with prisoners, such as Working Chance and Working Links.

She is optimistic about the future of the charity. She says there was a sea change after Michael Gove became Secretary of State for Justice, with prison governors given more freedom, which she hopes will continue with this summer’s appointment of Liz Truss. “There is a real appetite about what works in prisoner rehabilitation and an acknowledgment that the third sector [charities] have a huge role to play,” says Vermont.

“There is much more willingness on the part of prisons to open their doors to projects like ours. In the last 10 months, so many more prisons have been more welcoming and said ‘please, come and work with us’.”

With Finding Rhythms' record of success to date, that could spell good news – not only for prisoners but ultimately employers too.

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