How prisoners are achieving a new kind of record

Hip hop and prisons have always been linked, but not in a positive way - until now. Johnny Davis visits HMP Bristol
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The Independent Online

Her Majesty's Prison Bristol is a Victorian brick-built complex in the suburbs of the city. Since its completion in 1897, the sum total of inmates to have escaped its austere walls is precisely zero. Indeed, since one of the last British hangings took place here during Christmas 1963, and since the bones of many of the hanged are buried under the Tarmac where, today, prisoners play football, you might argue that some have never really left at all. Classified as a Category B prison (A has maximum restrictions; D minimum), security for the 606 male prisoners is tight.

Getting in is reasonably tough, too. Understandably, there's no small amount of to-ing and fro-ing required to grant a journalist visiting rights, the absolute final stage of which - producing a passport at the main gate as part of a brusque identification process - ends with a sobering precaution. "We'll look after that for you," says the officer undertaking a thorough search. "If you drop your passport in here, that's worth a lot of money." Mobile phone and chewing gum are also confiscated. The former for obvious reasons, the latter following a lesson learned the hard way after inmates used gum to jam a lock, resulting in a prison-wide refit, to the tune of £300,000. "They're crafty in here," she says. "Very crafty."

It's a little after 8am on a bright Thursday, and I've come to watch the inmates make a rap song. It's no charity stunt. Today is the result of plenty of hard graft between the London music collective Blacktronica, PlayStation 2 (the games console people, whose spokesman said: "You might say prisoners aren't a target market, but they're not going to be in there for ever") and the prison's education department. The idea is this: to use a medium the inmates might warm towards to nurture some important life skills.

"It's a chance to develop self-esteem, team-working and communication lessons and a way for them to express themselves," says Helen Daisley, employed by HMP Bristol as its steely Head of Learning and Skills. "A lot of the guys I work with have been institutionalised for a long, long time. For the outside world to show an interest in them can have a positive effect on their resettlement."

Today, representing the outside world are the rapper Ty, and Kewba, both affiliated to Blacktronica, a loose group of artists known for their altruistic approach to club culture. Ty, in particular, has been using rap as a teaching tool for the past decade; occasionally in prisons, more usually in youth workshops. (One of his teaching sessions, broadcast on Radio 1, was shortlisted for a Sony Gold Award, the Oscars of UK broadcasting.) A stout man with black-rimmed specs, goatee and dress-down Adidas and jeans, he'll quickly prove himself to be an inspirational tutor.

"Prisons are actually easier than youth workshops," Ty explains. "These are grown men who've worked hard for the opportunity to be in the room. They have a set amount of time and they don't waste it. I've never had to prove myself in a prison."

Rap is, of course, the genre of music most readily associated with illegal goings on. In the past couple of weeks, for instance, there's been a huge fuss over 50 Cent's upcoming film Get Rich Or Die Tryin', a biopic that may or may not glamorise the New York rapper's experiences as a drug dealer, during which time, famously, he was shot nine times. And you don't have to be Tim Westwood to know that rap's given the world plenty of songs unlikely to be aired at any policemen's balls: "Cop Killer", "Fuck Tha Police" and "911 is a Joke" among them. But it's also a genre with words and storytelling as its backbone; one that connects with people in a way that, say, trying to write a song in the style of U2 would not. Ty explains that he never sets restrictions on lyrical content and today will be no exception. The point is to get his audiences, wherever they are, to open up.

Initially, HMP Bristol said it didn't have a space suitable to host a rap workshop. Then someone remembered the chapel. A stand-alone building situated between A and G wings, it's the size of a Tesco Metro and decked out with pews and yellowing copies of Christian Aid News. Its sole stained-glass window is barred.

Quite whether rapping in a chapel qualifies as suitable is a moot point. But it's certainly a big enough venue. Chairs are arranged in a vague semi-circle, and 14 prisoners - twenty- and thirty-somethings of all shapes, sizes and races - shuffle in, wearing tracksuit bottoms, T-shirts and trainers.

Though they've been selected for this exercise after signing their names on a list, Ty's first task is to make sure everyone's on the same page: "I'm not expecting a gold record on the wall. I'm not going to get you up here break-dancing and spinning around. Nobody has to take their top off and run around like Tupac."

By the end of the working day - which is 4.30pm, followed by exercise, food, then cells - Ty wants everyone to have contributed lyrics and sung on a track, which he'll record. This way, the prisoners will have worked together, as a team, towards a tangible final goal. But first Ty has to get them to express themselves and feel comfortable with each other. He starts gently. What music are they into?

"Dance music, Paul Oakenfold, drum and bass," says one prisoner.

"I like rave," says another. "And Avril Lavigne, too. I like the way she rocks it."

"I listen to 50 Cent, Eminem," says another. "If I was to come out with lyrics like that, I'd probably be banged up for life."

There's further discussion about the music they don't much care for (boy bands, cover versions, Peter Andre) and who might reasonably be described as an all-time great recording artist (Bob Marley, Madonna; definitely not Michael Jackson - the prisoners think this year's legal woes have blown it for him). Next, Ty asks Kewba to start up a backing track. A mid-tempo instrumental with a solemn piano refrain fills the chapel. Ty wonders what sort of lyrics it might be best suited to.

"Emotional," says an inmate. "You could chat emotional lyrics to this."

"Pianos are associated with lyrics that are meaningful," agrees Ty. "They're used to get a particular mood. Can we try right now to add something to the music?"

He asks everyone to come up with an image suggested by the track. He goes round the circle.

"Never lost this amount of money before."

"Black on black killing."

"Angry with himself, disrespects his mother."

"Being locked off in jail from your girl and you feel like she's cheating on you."

Ty says the music reminds him of the recent telly advert for Sky TV, featuring Kiefer Sutherland's Jack Bauer character from 24, sobbing alone in his car. There's general approval: it's a great ad that somehow manages to say much with very little. Ty hands out pens and paper and asks everyone to write down a similarly filmic scenario, something they've thought of, suggested by the background music.

Getting a group of 14 blokes to give something of themselves to each other isn't easy, never mind that they happen to be in a place of worship, inside a prison. Some don't much care for the idea. But Ty ekes a bit of creative writing out of everyone. He goes round the circle again, and the inmates read out tales of burying their mother, of losing both their best friend and girlfriend the day they went to prison and of how drug abuse ruptured their family. One prisoner reads out a remarkable tour de force, all in rhyming couplets, that talks of finding God, asks for mercy for all "men that's locked up in a penitentiary" and ends by liberally quoting Revelations. It gets a round of applause.

Ty is pleased with the progress, and suggests that he sees a way to link the stories together to make a narrative, which they can then record over the music. Then there's a break for lunch.

You might feasibly question what use talking to a load of criminals about Bob Marley and rap music is. It's possible you might think their time would be better spent brushing up on something more useful. Maths, say. Or English. (Both of which, and plenty more besides, are taught at Bristol.) You might be right. But the prison staff wouldn't agree with you.

"It's amazing," says Hywel Jenkins, the officer charged today with standing guard over proceedings. "The way they're engaged with each other. Normally during education they piss about. Fag breaks. Toilet breaks. This is 100 per cent positive."

"It's very powerful," says Helen Daisley. "The sorts of lyrics they're coming up with, the sort of discussions they're having ... it's about addressing their issues rather than blaming society or internalising their thoughts. It's about them working out how they got to where they are, so we can prevent them coming back again. They're exploring things. Without knowing that, of course."

Whatever preconceptions there were about meeting the inmates, it's confounding how downright normal they seem. Talking to them, it's hard not to reach the conclusion that these are just regular blokes who've had the misfortune to get caught out. One is on remand after being arrested for reversing his car around a corner without a licence. Another is doing five years having been nicked with a soberingly small amount of drugs (in fact, an unofficial estimate links an association with drugs behind 95 per cent of the sentences in Bristol prison).

Certainly, Ty is deemed a hit. "He's terrific," says one prisoner. "I'd like to do more like this, learn more. It should be once a week. I'm a lifer, but I'm a bright guy. There's not much going on in here."

"That bloke used to take his frustration out on the guards he was that fed up," says another, pointing to an inmate who showed up today carrying a cardboard box stuffed full of pieces of A4. "But then he started putting it all down on paper. That's why something like this is good."

"Obviously people are generally in prison for a good reason," says Daisley. "But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be given a chance."

BACK IN the chapel, Ty and Kewba have set up a microphone and a laptop with recording software. Ty encourages the room to read their lyrics into the mic, finding a rhythm that will match the music. Not everyone gets it first time. "It's like putting a Cosworth engine into a Mark 1 Escort," says one of the inmates. "That's how hard it is."

"Your accent's gone completely LA," Ty advises another prisoner. "Do it again. From where you were doing it in the practice run, you've got on a plane."

The teamwork element kicks in, with prisoners holding up lyric sheets for each other to read, applauding when they manage to finish without tripping over their words and suggesting new phrases where someone's lines fail to scan convincingly. Everyone behaves. One inmate asks Kewba how much he paid for his laptop and suggests he'd have been able to get hold of one cheaper, though I suspect he doesn't mean to direct him to Dixons.

4.30pm rolls round and it's time to stop, but nobody really wants to. Everyone judges the day a great success. Helen Daisley hopes the prison can do something similar regularly. In fact, Blacktronica plan to do more workshops, in prisons up and down the country, early next year. In the meantime, Ty and Kewba promise to edit the inmates' work into a song and send it on as a CD. That'll be a criminal record, then. But one that's hopefully had its uses.

"Their openness was riveting to me," says Ty on the long walk back to the prison gates, and the outside world. "Considering they were from really different walks of life, and they'd never been in the same room before, the level of respect for each other was amazing. Maybe we haven't changed the world, but to give those people belief in themselves, outside of their criminal existence, that has to be a positive thing. Right?"