Charlotte Foster


The music program rehabilitating inmates

The music program rehabilitating inmates

While a lot of prison inmates are not given the luxuries of life outside jail, one rehabilitation program is giving inmates one of life’s greatest pleasures: music. 

For Oli Firth, who was sent to Broken Hill Correctional Centre on drug-related offences, the Songbirds program changed his life.

"[Music] was a real beacon of light for me. It was the one thing that carried me through," he told ABC RN's Life Matters.

“It was the toughest time in my life.”

The director of the Songbirds program, musician Murray Cook, has played with bands such as Midnight Oil, Mental as Anything and Mixed Relations.

But for more than 20 years, Mr Cook has run music classes in different NSW prisons, including a stint as a music teacher in the psych ward of Sydney's Long Bay Correctional Centre.

The Songbirds program, a project of the non-profit Community Restorative Centre, brings music and other art forms into prisons, with a focus on songwriting as a means of rehabilitation. 

"If you're in jail, it's a jungle. It really is. I'd hate to go there," Mr Cook says.

"Because if you show any emotion, if you let on that you really love your daughter or something like that, [other prisoners] can use that against you. That's a bargaining chip for them to stand over you and get money — threaten to kill your kids, that sort of stuff."

But he says, "Somehow within the context of a song, it's OK to say stuff like that, to say something like, 'I love my partner.'"

As a way of dealing with feelings they believe they can’t vocalise, Mr Cook tries to get inmates to write about their feelings and experiences. 

However, he admits this process isn’t always straightforward. 

In the first session of a songwriting class, he talks about tolerance, about "not putting anyone else down, [not] being too critical".

"[I also] always say in the first workshop, 'Look, your lives are really valuable … your music is so valuable.'"

He says the classes can be made up of a fairly diverse group, which makes for an accepting and tolerant environment.

"When you look at a group, you've got Islanders, Kooris, Middle Eastern people, bikies … They'd probably kill each other in the yard, as they tend to segregate into their own groups," Mr Cook says.

"[But soon] you see a Koori guy over there working with an Asian guy and a bikie, trying to write a song, it's fantastic."

It’s then over to the prisoners to perfect their songs and, if they choose, perform them for other inmates.

"Once they've got it out and sung it, it's very cathartic. Just to know that somebody's listening to their story," Mr Cook says.

If the inmates choose, Mr Cook helps them record their new tracks, which have been released on a series of Songbird albums over the years. 

"Like I always say to people in jail, music is a great way of letting off steam without hurting anyone … [But] I think the core of this is the personal transformation that comes through music," Mr Cook says.

Image credits: Getty Images

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