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Jailhouse rock: the Barlinnie choir sing songs of freedom

SOME of the hardest men in Scotland have taken part in a choir project behind bars.

IN TUNE: Alison Urie, who runs the Barlinnie choir, at her Briggait Centre base. The choir offers prisoners respite from jail life. Picture: Martin Shields
IN TUNE: Alison Urie, who runs the Barlinnie choir, at her Briggait Centre base. The choir offers prisoners respite from jail life. Picture: Martin Shields

In a move inspired by Gareth Malone's The Choir, a Glasgow-based charity built up a singing group in Barlinnie over three months and recently performed a concert in front of 50 family members, friends and staff.

Alison Urie established the charity Vox Liminis last summer to try to bridge the gap between offenders and their communities, work on rehabilitation and ­stimulate debate about crime and punishment.

The Barlinnie choir ran every Thursday for three months. Their repertoire included Three Little Birds by Bob Marley, Maggie May by Rod Stewart and some "tongue in cheek" numbers including, Innocent Man by Billy Joel and Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd.

"It is really important for people in prison to be able to see the ­positives of what they can do and what they can be involved in," said Ms Urie, who used to be a youth development worker.

"The choir included short-term prisoners, lifers and long-term prisoners. They said it was the one moment in the week they were treated like humans and felt they could have a normal life. We hope to do it again."

She added: "Research has shown us what works with addressing reoffending and rehabilitation - in terms of giving people hope and treating them like human beings. That is why we want to do more projects around this. I have watched The Choir and that was perhaps part of the inspiration. Gareth Malone showed the power of corporate singing. Being able to do that in a prison environment is phenomenal."

The men said the project helped with self-esteem.

"I'm going back in such a good mood that I'm helping the other guys who aren't doing well," said one Barlinnie choir member. "I'm doing my bit in the halls. Through [the choir] I started thinking about myself in a slightly different way... it might have changed my life. Let's see."

Another member of the choir said: "It made us feel like we were worth something. It felt like our time was being used in a good way. By the end it felt like others were relying on you. We'd become part of a group"

Derek McGill, governor of HMP Barlinnie, said: "I like to introduce artistic elements to the regime to allow prisoners to explore opportunities. If they discover a talent for art, music, choirs, then they can attend that activity on release, which could help them desist from crime.

"We all work towards making Scotland a safer place. We now are about Unlocking Potential and Transforming Lives, both in and out of prison. If we do that then we prevent further victims of crime."

Vox Liminis also ran a songwriting workshop with women in HMP Cornton Vale which began with a gig by singer-songwriter Kim Edgar, and David Scott of BMX Bandits and Pearlfishers.

A spokesman for the Scottish Prison Service said: "We do everything we can to encourage prisoners to make a positive contribution. Events like these help with the successful re- integration of offenders."

Several of Scotland's prisons are holding carol concerts in the run-up to Christmas, including Greenock and Shotts.

Other successful music programmes to have been introduced include rap workshops at Polmont Young Offenders Institution. Musician Marc Pawson, whose stage name is Mpfree, has been applauded for boosting young inmates' confidence and helping them break the cycle of criminality with the sessions.

Jail reform body the Howard League Scotland has said such activities can be "very powerful and effective" while Fergus McNeill, professor of criminology and social work at Glasgow University, has said songwriting and performance "creates opportunities for people to express their humanity and vulnerability", which is "critical to addressing conflicts and repairing harm in relationships".

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