Billy Bragg's jailhouse rock project cuts reoffending rate

Billy Bragg has backed the miners, campaigned against racism and promoted perestroika in the Soviet Union. Yet the folk-rock singer from Barking has embarked on his most ambitious socio-political project to date; an attempt to wean convicted criminals serving time away from a life of crime. And it's working.

In an exclusive interview in The Independent Magazine today, Bragg reveals an initiative he set up last year is producing radical results for some of the country's most damaged prisoners. Through the Jail Guitar Doors campaign – named after the B-side to The Clash's 1978 single "Clash City Rockers" – Bragg is raising money to provide inmates in British prisons with musical equipment. By encouraging them to express themselves in music, Bragg insists it raises morale and minimises the risk of recidivism. Among those who have engaged in sessions with Bragg, the rate of reoffending is much lower than the national average. His campaign has enlisted the support of several public figures, including the TV presenters Dermot O'Leary, Jonathan Ross, and Phil Jupitus, as well as influential musicians such as The Clash's Mick Jones. It has raised more than £10,000 to date, and this week won the support of the manufacturer Gibson Guitars.

"It seemed to me something that all musicians would be able to see the value of immediately", Bragg says in the interview. "If only because all musicians are already keenly aware of just what a contribution music can make to life, and how it can help you transcend your surroundings no matter how bleak they appear".

The 50 year-old activist, who last year published an acclaimed polemic on the condition of modern Britain, goes on to explain his campaign's early success.

Bragg visited Guy's Marsh prison in Dorset last year, working closely with many of its inmates. Of those prisoners who participated in his therapeutic sessions before parole, only 10-15 per cent have reoffended. That is significantly lower than the national average of 61 per cent. "So there's your proof", says Bragg. "It works".

His efforts have not gone unnoticed, and Bragg's initiative is developing an influential fan base. The prisons minister David Hanson wants the scheme to be introduced in more jails.

"I was delighted to accompany Billy Bragg at HMP Pentonville last year," Mr Hanson said. "I'm looking to enable the extension of his scheme to prisons in the North-west very shortly. We're looking to use Billy's charitable efforts to support people to have positive activity in prison, to help them learn life skills, and to be able to equip them better for when they leave prison, so they don't reoffend when they go out."

According to Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, "Projects like Billy Bragg's can absolutely make a difference. That's one reason prison overcrowding is so damaging: it stretches resources and makes it difficult to perform this kind of creative work with prisoners more widely".

Bragg's prison work is only the latest political project of a musical maverick with impeccable socialist pedigree. After buying his way out of a tank regiment in the British Army for £175, Bragg campaigned vociferously against the Thatcher government, coming to public attention for his support of the 1984 miners' strike.

A former member of both the Labour-supporting music collective Red Wedge and the pressure group Charter 88, which campaigned for radical electoral reform, Bragg has always worn his politics on his sleeve. He once qualified his support of proportional representation by saying: "It would shine a torch into the dirty little corner where the BNP defecate on our democracy".

Commenting on penal policy in today's interview, he says: "We just can't keep sticking people in prisons without trying to rehabilitate them in some or other way.

"I never ask prisoners I meet why they are inside. When I'm with them, I'm dealing with them strictly as individuals. And anyway, these instruments aren't presents; they're a challenge, a challenge for them to try to make something of themselves. My hope is that they will see this as an opportunity to take that first step on the path back to society."

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice