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A music-making project within HMP Inverness is helping offenders develop skills for life, learning and work. Stacey Toner describes the challenges and its aims for the future.

Photo of musicians rehearsing & laughing
Group recording during a final session

Stacey Toner

Fèis Rois is working in partnership with HMP Inverness to develop the music-making skills of offenders as well as their skills for life, learning and work. We began the project in April with the support of Creative Scotland’s Access to Music Making fund and will develop this work into 2018.

As can be appreciated, working with the Scottish Prison Service has its challenges, but we are learning how to adapt with each session

We have a team of musicians teaching on the project who have extensive experience of working with communities, from early years to established players, and between them they cover songwriting, tuition and content production. They are all appropriately skilled for a project that demands adaptability and creativity in their approach and they work closely with both us and the staff at HMP Inverness. We also have a trainee musician who is doing an MA in ‘Music and the Environment’ at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Sessions and gigs

The activity within the project has varied from week-long residencies to regular weekly sessions. We have engaged men from across the prison population, including those held on remand, and convicted and protected prisoners. Activity has included one-to-one and group work sessions across a range of instruments including keyboard, ukulele, guitar and accordion. It has embedded electronic music-making and sound recording too.

During our last block of delivery, our team of musicians worked with offenders to create and record several traditional electronic tracks. One participant, 25-year-old Alex, commented in a one-to-one interview: “I knew nothing of Scotland’s music. But straight away I saw the accordion and wanted to play it…Whilst I’m here, I am trying to make the most of my time.”

We have also coordinated three gigs in the prison to encourage participation and expose external organisations to our work.

Family connections

Although these developments have been fruitful, we have come across challenges when trying to work with the families of offenders due to unpredictable hold times, shorter sentences and the movement and transfer of offenders. Many families are spread across the Highland region, which demands substantial travel time and costs in getting to and from the prison for visits. This is in addition to the more common logistical problems, such as lack of space and the time needed to work with multiple services and agencies.

We piloted family music-making sessions within the prison, aimed at providing a fun activity through which relationships could be strengthened. We also partnered with Action for Children to pilot community-based sessions for families of offenders in its office spaces in the centre of Inverness.

These engaged a small number of families, but it became apparent very quickly that sustainability was problematic due to the practicalities and cost of delivery. However, those that did take part experienced a positive impact, with feedback from one parent stating: “He had a ball and the session was really well held… and so nice for them to get inspiration from the older kids too. We even went right out and managed to find a decent children’s guitar for £10 in a charity shop!”

Regardless of the challenges to date, we are currently exploring and building new relationships with other agencies and services working directly with the families of offenders, including the local authority, the Care and Learning Alliance in Inverness and Families Outside, an agency for offenders’ families based in Edinburgh. We are hoping that with further collaboration we can support their work by providing music-making activity for those they work with.

Service provider and collaborator

The ultimate aim is to become a regular service provider within HMP Inverness, with activity accounted for within our core programme and embedded within the prison’s annual learning plan.

We are working with the Scottish Prison Service’s national learning team to see how we can work with Fife College to align our delivery, contributing to the requirements of formal qualifications, so the offenders who engage with us also increase their numeracy and literacy through music-making. This will be a tangible outcome alongside the softer outcomes of increased confidence, empowerment and sense of achievement.

We are also very keen to share our learning nationally and internationally. We have become a member of the Scottish Prison Arts Network and are looking to collaborate on the creation of new continued professional development for staff within prisons in partnership with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

We have also connected with Carnegie Hall in New York and are in the early stages of exploring the possibilities of a letter-based exchange between programme participants, the aim being to widen perspectives, learn about different cultures and to strengthen written communication skills.

As can be appreciated, working with the Scottish Prison Service has its challenges, but we are learning how to adapt with each session. We aspire to build on our relationship, so we can take music-making opportunities into a new environment on a long-term basis, creating a stimulating learning experience for offenders and their families, while widening our own audiences.

Stacey Toner is Project Manager of Fèis Rois.

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Photo of Stacey Toner