Tips for making music in prisons

Philip Emery, director of charity Changing Tunes and member of Beckenham Concert Band, gives a how-to guide for making music in prisons.

Members of Making Music may remember an article in the Spring 2105 Issue of ‘High Notes’ (the Making Music Membership Magazine) about music in prisons, or you might have attended a presentation by the prison music charity, Changing Tunes at the Making Music Conference in London in May 2014.

I am very grateful to Barbara and everyone at Making Music for their continuing interest and support of the work of our charity using music for the rehabilitation of prisoners and ex-prisoners and for this opportunity to try to help music groups bring their music to prisons if they are interested in doing so, but are not sure how to go about it. Apart from my day job as a charity director, I run the Beckenham Concert Band (a member of Making Music) and have organised successful prison concerts for the band.

Some background information

The prison population in England and Wales is about 85,000 of which about 4,000 are female prisoners. There are different types of prisons depending on security categorisation, regime and roles they might have in rehabilitation. Categories range from A (highest security level) to D (open prison).

Most prisoners serve short sentences up to about a year (the average sentence length is currently about 15 months). The high profile cases are not typical. Most people in prison are often there because of their chaotic lifestyles and a background of deprivation, exclusion, abuse and violence. This is often linked to low self-esteem and self-worth, as well as a lack of opportunity. For example, 49% of female and 23% of male prisoners in a Ministry of Justice study were assessed as suffering from anxiety and depression compared to 16% of the general population. Men recently released from prison are eight times more likely, and women 36 times more likely, than the general population to take their own lives.

People can find themselves in the criminal justice system because of homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction or misuse, poor education, joblessness, debt, poor physical or mental health, or family and relationship problems. The prison systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland are run on slightly different lines to the prison service in England and Wales, but, often, the challenges faced are very similar.

Why take a group into prison to make music?

Prisoners have often experienced a very negative and incomplete education in school, and find it difficult to engage with formal learning activities in custody because of previous poor experience, low self-esteem and low confidence levels. The music they listen to is often closely linked with their identity. This results in a high percentage who want to engage with music in any way, and express themselves through it. For Changing Tunes, our music sessions help prisoners to build positive relationships and find a focus on making positive changes to their lifestyle. For example, experiencing success in an area of interest such as music, and receiving praise for new learning and achievement is often just the spur required to lead to positive engagement with other forms of education.

Whatever music your group does will engage prisoners in a way that could just be the spark for somebody to start a positive road to rehabilitation. The impact can also be powerful for the members of a group visiting a prison to perform. Many members of the Beckenham Concert Band were anxious about a concert in a prison, but such was the response from the audience and the realisation of the value of the performance to the members of the audience that many musicians in the band asked when we could go back as soon as we left the prison!

Essential information

Security and health and safety are the prime considerations. Therefore, nearly everything is subject to these regulations. The prison chaplaincy department is often a good first contact to try to set up a performance in a prison as they often have good church and community links and many Making Music members will rely on good relationships with local churches for places to rehearse and perform on a regular basis.

The process will start quite a long time before any scheduled visit with a caveat that some security procedures will vary according to the category of prison. It is likely that the prison security department will require a Police National Computer check for each member of the group, which will require the submission of the full name, date of birth, address and National Insurance Number of each member of the group well in advance of the visit. Musical instruments to be brought into the prison will need to be listed in advance (the prison may require detail such as serial numbers of instruments), and you must declare any tools associated with your instrument (e.g. slide/cork grease, allen keys, etc.) and these items will be permitted at the prison’s discretion.

Many items are prohibited so it is best to travel light. If you arrive by car/coach it is best to leave items such as mobile phones locked in the vehicle before entry to the prison. Do not bring with you any item you will not need as there are strict limits on what items can be brought into the prison. The prison may require each member of the group to be searched before entry to the prison. If some items are essential to your performance such as a CD, then it may be possible to obtain special permission for a specific item to be brought into the prison under special circumstances.

The list of prohibited items is likely to include:

alcohol, drugs or medication of any kind, weapons of any description, mobile phones, pagers, computers, pen-knives, chewing gum, aerosols, scissors, glass bottles/jars, large amounts of money, computer software (e.g. CD or memory stick), cameras/video cameras, glue, tool repair kits, blu-tac, metal nail files, tinfoil.

Photo ID (i.e. passport or driving licence), will be required for everyone entering the prison. You will be escorted by a prisoner officer at all times and there will be staff present for the entire duration of a concert/performance.

Still interested?

The above information may have put you off, sparked your curiosity or inspired you to find out more about performing in a prison. This brief article is really a ‘rough guide’ to get you started and there will be many other considerations particular to different types of prison, locations, the nature of the group making the visit or the music to be performed.

Prisons are experiencing severe budget cuts and it is very, very unlikely that any establishment will be able to contribute towards your costs. You will also need to arrange the performance to comply with the needs of the prison regime in terms of the day and time of the performance. However, If you do take part in a concert in a prison then it will be unlike any other you have seen or any in which you have previously participated.

If it helps to get in touch to discuss any of the above in more detail please contact me via email:

We hope you find this Making Music resource useful. If you have any comments or suggestions about the guidance please contact us. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the content of this guidance is accurate and up to date, Making Music do not warrant, nor accept any liability or responsibility for the completeness or accuracy of the content, or for any loss which may arise from reliance on the information contained in it.