Behind the walls of Bedford Prison men are serving time as punishment for various crimes, but this week events are taking place which focus on the rehabilitation side of being locked up.
Soon many of the inmates will be released to rejoin society, hopefully with a new sense they can contribute thanks to the prison’s community week programme.
One of the first events was a singing workshop led by students from the Cambridge University Community Choir Education Outreach group.
With a guard watching closely from the back, the chapel reverberated to deep voices singing Danny Boy, which considering the inmates had only been rehearsing for about an hour, sounded good.
Cambridge outreach officer Joe Shaw said: “Most of the prisoners are new to singing but they are doing really well. This is an opportunity that they may never had before. The men get a confidence from performing, which we hope they’ll take into the future.”
The community week has been organised by prison chaplain Sharon Grenham-Toze. She said the various events will get prisoners to link in with different parts of the community and be exposed to opportunities society has to offer but they have never been exposed to.
She said: “A lack of exposure or opportunity is a common factor in many of the prisoners’ lives. Things like singing in a choir may not necessarily be part of their culture, and a lot of the inmates have a low view of what they can achieve.
“Last time we had the choir in, a prisoner turned to me and said ‘is that music for the likes of us, miss?’. This week is also about breaking down the barriers some men have in thinking certain things are for an elite they cannot be part of.”
While it might sound like a piece of fun to people on the outside, a music session for prisoners is part of their continuing education. Sharon said: “It brings out specific skills such as listening and respecting other’s contributions. There are seven recognised pathways to rehabilitaion which look at issues such as relationships, housing and employment, but also areas that this is tackling: attitudes, thinking and behaviour.
“Of course prison is a way for society to express disapproval and punishment for what they have done, but the prisoners will be released and you’ve got to do something to improve their chances of rejoining that society.”
This is the second visit the Cambridge students have made to Bedford Prison, the first being a successful Christmas concert.
As the singing group have their final rehearsal before the concert, their feedback will be assessed by the university to establish its usefulness. In the meantime, two prisoners spoke about what it meant to them.
One inmate, a man in his 50s, said: “The choir came at Christmas, it was excellent. The whole atmosphere was tremendous, which encouraged me to volunteer today. I wouldn’t class myself as a singer and this has exceeded all my expectations, joining in with the harmonies.
“I never thought I’d be able to contribute to a choir. I have exposed myself to something I never thought I could do, which shows you can try something difficult and enjoy it.”
A young prisoner added: “Singing like this is a release. It has made me feel emotional. I was nervous at first but that’s gone. I like singing. Now I’d give it a go, if I saw an opportunity like this on the outside.
“But it would also be nice if we could transfer some of this energy in here to the worship services when we sing the hymns.”
After the workshop, the inmates and students will perform an informal concert to the rest of the prison.
Sharon said events like this not only help the prisoners build better relations among themselves and with the outside community but help prison staff form stronger bonds.
She said: “The week is as much about building community among staff members as well as the inmates. It can be a happy place to work.”
During a typical day in the prison, the inmates will be working, in education, taking exercise or simply locked up.
Deputy Governor Clive Large said organising the week’s events around the normal routine was a logistical challenge but it has got all the departments working together.
He said: “There is so much going on in the prison and the staff have worked really hard to organise this, but the benefits are great. Of the men who have shown enthusiasm, volunteered and turned up, if half-a-dozen reduce their chance of reoffending, or repeat offenders delay commiting another crime, it’s a success.”
Bedford Prison handles about 5,000 prisoners a year. With an average stay of about 33 days, it sees a lot of movement of prisoners within the prison service.
Next month, the prison will become a resettlement prison, which will house men with sentences of up to 12 months. With a more settled routine for some prisoners, it is hoped programmes like the community week will have a greater impact on rehabilitation.