The art of doing bird, Singing in the chokey


Music is comforting and can remind us of better times, it can lift you out of prison if only for a short while.  It is essential to the human spirit, a break in the misery of bars, walls and gates, a small patch of bright colour in the greyness of prison life.  Along with books, music is the great escape.


I believe it was Billy Shakespeare who said – ‘music hath charms to soothe the savage breast’ – and as you will know, there is no shortage of savage breasts behind the high walls of HMP.  No one really expects prison to be a musical place, it is not ‘Jailhouse Rock’, there are no smiley-faced cons dancing on the landings and musically extolling the virtues of their incarceration.  But, music does play a large part in the British prison system.

Pans delight

Back in the 1970s, when Borstal was still a thing, the one time the wing television room was packed to the rafters was Thursday evening at 7pm for that old favourite Top of the Pops.  We were all young men, under the age of 21, and seeing and hearing the music of the day kind of kept us connected to the outside world.  Obviously, a lot of us were in the TV room not only for the music but also for a glimpse of the gorgeous Pan’s People, the scantily clad female dance troupe who appeared on the show every week. Borstal Boys were allowed a small transistor radio in possession but it had to have an earphone so that no one but the owner could hear the music.  There was even a black market in radios, they were passed from wing to wing, almost like The Resistance of the second world war with their secret radios.


In adult prisons music also has its place.  I remember getting my first Roberts Rambler radio and being lifted by having access to music in my cell.  I also remember 1998, when the Sony Walkman was finally allowed into prisons and we were allowed cassette tapes.  Milestones in prison life, as before this occurred we were only allowed medium-wave radios, FM radio was considered ‘dangerous’ and Security would not allow it.  Now, our only problem was that batteries were costing a fortune and there was no in-cell electricity.

The greatest gift

The advance of in-cell electricity points then changed the landscape again.  Suddenly, with no batteries to pay for, music was everywhere in prison, usually way too loud.  Beatbox stereos the size of a family suitcase became de rigeur with the younger element and fights were breaking out all over the system about noise.  But, despite that, music was still keeping people sane and connected to the outside world. There are even prisons that allow prisoners to have a musical instrument in their possession, and some encourage prisoners to form bands, with some success. Music is probably the greatest gift we have.  I was never more happy in prison than when I was singing at the top of my voice in the chokey.  Music can set you free.

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