Singing away those Holloway blues: Even the rappers are doing their thing at the female inmates' weekly music class. Sarah Jewell listens in

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'YOU'D THINK with all this cocaine they are confiscating they'd be able to afford a music teacher at least once more a week,' Rosie Washington says, as she strums on the electric guitar, struggling to learn a new chord.

Rosie (not her real name) is 23 and comes from San Francisco. She had a kilo of cocaine taped to her body when she walked through customs, expecting to make a prearranged phone call and get the next plane home. 'I'd only taken two days' leave. I'd arrived in London on Monday, and thought I'd be back at work on Wednesday,' she says.

She knew it was a risk but never thought she'd get caught: 'It's like not using a condom; you never think it will happen to you.'

It will be seven years before Rosie can return home. In the meantime, she is one of a group of women that attends Oliver Crooke's weekly lessons in Holloway prison's music department. Many of the inmates Mr Crooke teaches are young American, Colombian and Nigerian women, on remand awaiting trial for drug-running. For many of them, this is the first time they have been to England, and not only do they have to adjust to the shock of being in prison but also to that of a different culture. As Rosie says: 'To me, London is Holloway. I'm learning all about England just being here.'

Her mother was terrified when she learnt that Rosie had been arrested. English jails were torture chambers, she had heard, where prisoners were beaten up and had to 'eat and urinate in the same bowl'.

Rosie finds homesickness the hardest thing to bear, and the music class helps her relax. 'This is the only time I feel like I'm not in prison,' she says.

Mr Crooke, called Ollie by his students, is an accomplished musician whose enthusiasm for playing anything from jazz to African music inspires the women to shed their inhibitions and join in.

He is aware of the therapeutic value of his classes and aims 'to provide as much fun as possible for anyone who turns up'. He has been encouraging Rosie to sing, and she says she wants to play the blues: 'I can really play the blues inside; I couldn't when I was on the outside.'

Ollie, who also runs a recording studio and plays in live concerts, finds his prison work far more satisfying than his previous jobs in schools. 'The teaching atmosphere in Holloway is better, because the lessons mean a lot more to the students,' he says. 'They are far more willing to learn than most schoolkids. Also, the other teaching staff are really supportive. They're the friendliest bunch I've ever worked with.'

Some of the women in Ollie's classes are experienced musicians, but for the majority his first task is to coax them to choose an instrument, or to pick up the microphone and sing. One woman who, like Rosie, is learning the guitar, makes a loud, crashing sound. 'That's frustration,' she says, and her classmates laugh in sympathy. 'Come on, let's do some jamming,' says Rosie, and begins to sing. 'Oh I woke up this morning in Holloway/The judge said I couldn't go home/ Oh what's my mama gonna say?'

The music department has to cater for a wide range of musical tastes; although 65 per cent of Holloway's inmates are British, a large proportion comes from Africa, the West Indies, and North and South America. The most recent group to join the class are the rappers.

Word got around that the music department has the electronic equipment to create rap music, and the classes have taken on more of a disco atmosphere. The noise level sometimes impinges on other activities, such as pottery and computing, but Ollie is pleased that they have joined his classes. 'I knew there were lots of rappers in the prison, but it took a year for word to get around.'

The only instruments the women are permitted to practise on in their spare time in the cells are 12 acoustic guitars (there are no plugs for the electric guitars). Ollie approves of such activity because 'it helps the women when they are alone'.

Some have extremely good singing voices. Claire Stewart, 33, has just recorded a demo tape of a country and western song that she wrote. She joins Rosie in the guitar class, and picks up the microphone. A beautiful, resonant rendition of 'Walk on By' fills the room.

Other women pop their heads round the door as she sings 'Amazing Grace', then 'One Day at a Time, Sweet Jesus' accompanied by Mr Crooke on electric piano. 'Come on, Ollie,' Rosie pleads. 'Play the national anthem, the American national anthem,' Rosie and Claire laugh as they start to sing, and a mood of nostalgia fills the room.

Ollie encourages the women to sing and to write their own songs. With the help of a grant from the Burnbake Trust, a prison- based charity, the department is planning to set up a small studio where the women can record. 'There's enough talent at Holloway to make an LP that would make a lot of other singers look silly,' Ollie says.

(Photograph omitted)

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