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« BACK | HOME » ABOUT » THE SPIRIT SPEAKS » BANG UP FOR IT (PART 2)

BANG UP FOR IT (PART 2)

BRIXTON PRISON 2008

We congregate outside the visitor’s entrance before being 'processed'. We're divested of our mobiles and passports. A jolt of anxiety; what if they don't let us back out again? It's an unheimlich feeling; you've been here before, in a parallel, less kind universe...

Same dark Victorian Cellblocks. Now they might even seem quaint, a bit, y'know, Harry Potter, if they weren't embroidered with Razor wire and full of angry people. But ten years on, there's been changes. This time, instead of sandwiches we get lunch in a proper canteen, staffed by inmates. There’s a chart on the wall showing a collection of scary items smuggled in by prisoners - it looks like the contents of Larry's kitchen drawer. There are some leaflets giving details on how to spot and deal with suicidal prisoners. The uniformed officers are more polite this time, even to their charges. And this time we get a proper P.A. It's nice to see Brixton Prison are being accommodating to us Rock n Rollers. (Although to be fair, they were pretty accommodating to Jagger and Danzig).


This time, the inmates seem to wander into the chapel casually, unsegregated. Black and White cons sit side by side, without any obvious antagonism, if not in perfect harmony. And I'm amazed to see a number of female prison officers. Far from turning the inmates into slavering sex maniacs, these stern yet motherly screws appear to be having a soothing effect on the inmates; the atmosphere is much more relaxed than when we last played here. The expression I see on the faces of inmates as they shamble in is not so much fear, or defiance, as mild embarrassment...


We've been invited here as part of the Jail Guitar Doors project, spearheaded by Billy Bragg and the Strummerville Foundation. It's their mission to provide inmates with free acoustic guitars. We're shown a short video, hosted by the Barking Bard. A number of inmates are interviewed, talking about how having a guitar has helped them cope with life inside. Certain sections of the audience snigger when a slightly retarded-looking young lag appears on the screen inarticulately eulogising his new instrument. But the inmates in the film seem genuinely happy about being given a chance to do something, anything that's not staring at the wall. With a twist on Woody Guthrie, the guitars are adorned with the slogan 'This Machine Kills Time'. The film ends with a prisoner who's been let out on day release to play one of his songs onstage with Billy Bragg at a festival. He plays one of his own songs, with an originality and strangeness you can only get from teaching yourself. The song's good, the audience cheer and the guy's made up. 'You lot are Fucking Mental!' he beams.

I can hear a thousand daily Mail readers choking on their branflakes. The power of indignation in Surbiton at this idea would be enough to obviate a field of windmills. It's so New Labour. 'Straw's New Prison Initiative - Give murderers Guitars'. There’s a lot of nasty things you can do with the strings of an acoustic guitar, and playing ' Morning Has Broken' is only one of them. But If I was in here, a guitar might be the difference between madness and sanity. And this project could provide prisoners with one thing they lack and need - some kind of voice. I just hope I wouldn't be stuck in a cell with a rapist for eighteen months who wanted me to teach him the opening bars of 'Wonderwall'.

After a short talk from an amiable and upbeat prison officer, its time for us to do our thing. I feel a bit of a tool sitting down behind the Grand piano in the chapel off B wing. It's like an assembly when they've got certain 'gifted' children to do a performance in front of the whole school. This time the Governor’s here, sitting next to the stage like an indulgent headmaster, sporting a cheerful Cancer Awareness daffodil. What can we do, under the circumstances, but break into 'Folsom Prison Blues'?

I hear the train a comin'
It's rolling round the bend
And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when,
I'm stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps draggin' on
But that train keeps a rollin' on down to San Antone.
When I was just a baby my mama told me. Son,
Always be a good boy, don't ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die
When I hear that whistle blowing, I hang my head and cry...

I bet there's rich folks eating in a fancy dining car
They're probably drinkin' coffee and smoking big cigars.
Well I know I had it coming, I know I can't be free
But those people keep a movin'
And that's what tortures me...

Well if they freed me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine
I bet I'd move it on a little farther down the line
Far from Folsom prison, that's where I want to stay
And I'd let that lonesome whistle blow my blues away...


Johnny Cash played this song for the inmates of Folsom prison in 1968; and a legendary live recording of the show was released under the name 'At Folsom Prison'. On the record, there's a massive cheer when he gets to the 'Reno' line. In fact these cheers were dubbed on afterwards in the studio; the prisoners were careful not to cheer any of Cash's comments about the prison itself, for rear of reprisals from the guards. Today's performance too has been somewhat stage-managed. There's a camera crew here, and a writer from the Guardian; this is clearly something of a media spectacle. After the damning reports of a few years ago, all eyes are on Brixton.***  It can no longer afford to be 'Britain's worst prison'. It has to appear to be the best.

I'm wondering if other prisons are getting the same kind of attention, and which ones. Brixton is principally, apart from a small section of lifers, a remand prison; people are sent here to await trial or sentencing. What about category 'A' prisoners? Do they get guitars too? Brixton, like many prisons, is under resourced and understaffed, so prisoners are spending a lot of time on 'Bang Up', locked up in their cells for 23 hours a day. There was a 'mini-riot' last month. It's going to take more than a secondhand Hofner to alleviate that kind of pressure...

My friend Frank spent time inside, and he said it was hell trying to sleep, with prisoners banging on their cell doors and shouting all night.

'What were they shouting?' I asked Frank.

'Let Me Out!!!' 

Stupid question.

It's not my job to solve the vicissitudes of Britain's penal system. It's my job to prance around on stage like a twat, and play the piano. Duke Errol and the Reverend Be Atwell rock the chapel with some fine rapping and toasting, and by the time we get to 'Speed of The Sound of Loneliness' even the Nasty Looking Bastards have unlocked their arms and started to grin at Larry's antics. We were born to play this room.

After the show, the inmates get to ask questions about the Jail Guitar Doors Project. The response is enthusiastic; the initiative is obviously answering a real need. An American prisoner who looks suspiciously like the lead singer of the Eels asks if Bass guitars will be available. They won't, which is a shame, because the world needs more good bass players and less angry lead guitarists. I chat to one of the Jail Guitar Doors crew, who tells me that they managed to get guitars into a dozen prisons in their first year. He says amongst prisoners who actively participated in guitar workshops, the re-offending rate was 10-15% compared with a national average of 61%. The prison chaplain joins me at the piano and does a very bad Bob Dylan impression. We even chat to the governor, who is with weird aptness, a Joy Division fan. 'If I had my way you'd all be hung' he jokes. I think.

Exiting the prison gates, I hear the Eurostar from King's Cross, rollin' round the bend. They might not be smoking big cigars in first class these days, but those people keep a movin'. Let's hope they won't prevent the men I met today from moving a little further down the line.



*** At the time of our first visit, the place was still under the shadow of the abominable Michael Howard. An internal report in 2000 described Brixton as 'institutionally racist' and 'Britain’s worst prison'; the institution narrowly escaped privatisation.

(c) Orlando Harrison 2008