On a makeshift stage that, on any other day, is merely storage space within a cavernous gym hall, a band called the Meerkatz are halfway through a spirited rendition of "Do They Know It's Christmas?". The singer – a healthcare worker by day here at Styal women's prison in Wilmslow, near Manchester – gurns his way through the song as if it were a bowel movement. But if the crowd seems more appreciative than one would expect of an audience at three o'clock on a freezing winter's afternoon, it's because it is made up exclusively of inmates who would otherwise be doing, according to prisoner Adele, "boring stuff like learning how to read and write".
The singer-songwriter Billy Bragg was supposed to be here an hour ago in his role as figurehead of the Jail Guitar Doors initiative, bringing with him £1,600 worth of donated musical instruments, but he is currently stuck in traffic on a motorway far, far away. By the time he does finally turn up, huffing and puffing and full of apology, many of the congregated prisoners here will very likely have already made bail. But few right now are lamenting his tardiness. As the Meerkatz reach the climax of the Band Aid Christmas perennial, seven young women congregate on the side of the stage, each of them glammed up for their moment in the spotlight, and anxious for the microphone.
When Bragg last visited a prison, as part of his year-long trek around Her Majesty's establishments proffering musical gifts as incentives for self-betterment, it was to Pentonville in late November. There, in a small room far from the din and clang of the cells, a group of no more than a dozen inmates turned up to show appreciation. In Styal, however, it's more like 175, and they've taken over the darkened gym for an afternoon of raucous celebration and, in some cases, what grandmother would call "heavy petting". The Head of Interventions here, Annick Platt, thought it would be a good idea to make a day of it, and ran an X Factor-like competition offering inmates a chance to appear on stage alongside today's visiting national treasure, irrespective of the fact that many of the entrants had little idea precisely who the national treasure was. "Billy who?" asks Adele. Perhaps tellingly, Adele is just 24.
"In the past," Platt tells me, "we've found art therapy to be highly beneficial for inmates. A lot of the women we have here suffer from mental health disorders, or from drug problems, and a great many of them self harm. For all sorts of reasons, then, these are very damaged women, and while we can offer no magic cure, we have found that by engaging their creative side we can often help them, if you like, 'escape' their surroundings. Because nobody controls your thoughts, do they?"
It is only through art, she continues, that many are able to express themselves at all. Those too shy or too awkward to talk of their pain and suffering with social workers can instead articulate it in painting or poetry, examples of which adorn the walls throughout the complex. After today, they'll also be able to express themselves in song.
"They've not much to look forward to," Platt admits, "and so something like today's event really does give them a focus. In many ways, it's not so much a luxury as a lifesaver. When the Meerkatz last played, we had no reports that evening of any prisoner self harming. These kinds of things make them feel better about themselves, it lifts their spirits. That's very encouraging to us."
Which is why the atmosphere on stage right now is close to fever pitch. True, none of the seven women who won last week's contest is ever likely to impress Simon Cowell with their vocal prowess, but few could fault their enthusiasm. This line-up of excitable, giggling twentysomethings includes an arsonist and a repeat drug offender. One is inside for GBH, another for doing something unspeakable to a baby. One by one, they come to the centre of the stage and accompany the band on a selection of current hits and old favourites. One of the less serious offenders, 21-year-old Alicia, a heavyset girl with a head full of tight curls and a voice of considerable volume, lets loose on an almighty rendition of Lulu's "Shout" until stage fright descends, and she runs off, furious with herself.
"It's all very well practising the song in my cell, like," she tells me afterwards, scratching at the self-inflicted scars that line her arms like irregular train tracks, "but on stage, with all the lights, the microphone and the crowd – well, that's another story."
Alicia, who has never heard of Billy Bragg either but is grateful for his "support", was raised in a succession of care homes across the north-east of England, and says that anger is her most voluble emotion: "That's when I'm most likely to sing, when I'm angry. It's how I unstress myself. I'm telling you, if somebody had wound me up before going on stage today, I'd have sung a lot more powerful than what I did ..."
Back in the hall, it's almost five o'clock now. A side door opens, and the national treasure finally emerges. The crowd immediately start shouting: "WHO ARE YOU? WHO ARE YOU?" but it's good-natured and fun, and after a flurry of "sorrys", Bragg accompanies the Meerkatz and all seven finalists in a shambolic version of "Route 66", twirling the arsonist round and round with an outstretched arm. So whipped up in the atmosphere does he become that, as the band segues into "Johnny B Goode", he removes his jacket and, uncharacteristically, indulges in the kind of overly elbowed dance familiar to all drunken uncles of a certain age.
"I'm playing with The Pogues in Manchester tomorrow night," he tells the cheering, jeering crowd at one point. "I can't see it getting any wilder than this, can you?"
Jail Guitar Doors, Bragg will later explain to me over a meal in a deserted Indian restaurant, is an independent initiative aiming to supply musical equipment to inmates of Her Majesty's prisons nationwide via donations. Taking its name from the B-side of The Clash's 1978 single "Clash City Rockers", Jail Guitar Doors came into being in the early part of last year after the singer received a letter from Malcolm Dudley, a prison rehabilitation officer at Guy's Marsh in Dorset, asking for help in getting musical instruments into prison on the conviction that they could do good, and perhaps even affect long-term change. Bragg had already undertaken a similar initiative in a hospice, helping dying women articulate their terror of leaving behind family members through music.
"I like to work with people who have been marginalised from society," he says. "Also, I wanted to do something in memory of [The Clash's] Joe Strummer, who died just over five years ago. It seemed to me something that all musicians would be able to see the value of immediately, 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 may appear."
The Guy's Marsh project went well, so much so that when Bragg was later invited to the NME Awards he decided to use the event to give the campaign some necessary oxygen. Taking the stage, he told the assembled wealthy rock stars of his plans to raise sufficient funds to get acoustic guitars into every prison in the country, and that he would be willing to accept any and all donations.
"People were very kind, very generous indeed," he says.
Pertinently, the first person to stump up some cash was The Clash's Mick Jones (who would later accompany him on several prison visits), quickly followed by various indie bands, and TV presenters such as Dermot O'Leary, Jonathan Ross and Phill Jupitus. To date, he has raised more than £10,000.
"It's not easy getting things like guitars into prisons," he points out, "because there's the fear that they could be used as weapons – although they never yet have, to my knowledge. I've spent much of the past 12 months giving the same spiel over and over again to each new governor, and slowly but surely the message is getting out there, and people are becoming increasingly receptive. With good reason, too."
He gives an example. Of those prisoners at Guy's Marsh who actively participated in music sessions before they were paroled, only 10 to 15 per cent have since re-offended. The national average is 61 per cent. "So there's your proof," he says. "It works."
When he visited Pentonville in November, bringing with him guitars, keyboards, drums and a very humble Mick Jones, the prisoners who came along to participate were not high risk. No murderers or terrorists here, and in fact the atmosphere was rather jovial, an updated Porridge complete with its own Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale equivalents. But here at Styal, his audience is much more varied, council tax non-payers rubbing shoulders with hardened, neck-tattooed criminals, some of whom will never see the outside again. These are women whose gaze you fear to meet, women who lashed out at a cruel life and bad luck, and are now paying the price. But Bragg refuses to differentiate among them. Anyone can sign up to his programme, the only criterion required being imprisonment. It is this very fact that has made the campaign, in some quarters at least, so controversial. Can murderers really be rehabilitated? Moreover, do we want them to be – because doesn't rehabilitation suggest the possibility of parole, and eventual release?
"I never ask the prisoners I meet why they are inside," he responds tartly. "When I'm with them, I'm dealing with them strictly as individuals. What they did to get themselves in here in the first place is none of my business. I don't want to judge them on that, not least because they've been judged on it already – they're banged up, aren't they? 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.
"Of course," he says, softening, "a lot of people do ask me why I don't give the guitars to the victims of their crimes instead, but look, I can't do anything for those people now. What I can do is my very best to ensure that there aren't any further victims."
After Bragg's avuncular performance before the rowdy Styalers, Annick Platt takes us both on a tour of the grounds. Built on the site of a former children's home, many of the original buildings still survive, and the inmates here are segregated depending on the risk they pose, both to themselves and to others. Those more in need of discipline are kept in the traditional prison wings, two to a cell, while first offenders – and Styal has many – are kept in small houses with dormitories sleeping between four and six. Here, the women are allowed the run of the place, given budgets for supplies and daily duties to fulfil. It's all rather like being on a university campus but one permanently monitored, and with the doors closed and double bolted.
In one of the houses a young inmate, probably still a teenager and dressed in football colours, comes up to say hello. Platt suggests she show us round her living quarters. She takes us to the front room, where half a dozen girls are slumped on sofas in front of a television, and on into the kitchen and then the art room where poems have been stuck on to the wall. One is particularly affecting, an expletive-laden stanza about the noises in a young girl's head and how she refuses to be broken by them. Bragg seizes upon this enthusiastically, and with no one else in the room to listen to him, focuses all his zeal on our teenage guide. She listens with an almost scholarly obedience as he bangs on about the importance of creativity like this, the lifeline it gives to us all, and how if she and her friends here could concentrate on doing more things like this – writing poetry, creating music, singing songs – then, well, who knows how their futures could pan out? Twenty-five years ago, the guitar helped Bragg out of his east-London bedroom and showed him the world. Anything is possible.
"Spread the word, friend," he stresses. "Encourage as many people as you can, yeah?"
Speech over, he falls silent. The absence of applause is palpable.
"And here's where we do the washing," the girl says next, the tour recommencing.
Jail Guitar Doors will continue in its attempts to raise awareness and money throughout 2008, but its founder will be taking more of a backseat from now on. This March, the 50-year-old singer is releasing Mr Love & Justice, his first album in six years, and touring commitments will keep him elsewhere. Though he has now secured the backing of the Minister for Prisons, David Hanson, he is ideally looking for someone else to pick up the gauntlet and run with it. Mick Jones would be a possibility, but Jones isn't quite as keyed up as Bragg, if only because no one is ever quite as keyed up as Billy Bragg. After all these years, he is still a tireless social and political activist, and a serial campaigner who wants to help people not for selfish self-advancement but rather, it seems, in the name of good, old-fashioned philanthropy.
"At the end of the day," he says, "we just can't keep sticking people in prisons without trying to rehabilitate them in some or other effective way, and if this only ever works for one inmate, then, well, that's one less person behind bars, isn't it?"
I tell him that he is doing seriously compassionate work here, and that if he is not careful then the Queen could soon be forced to take note, and perhaps even honour him appropriately.
"Oh Christ, no," he groans, hand on forehead. "I don't need anything like that, thanks. I've got a road named after me in [his native] Barking, and Bob Dylan mentioned me in his autobiography. That's all I need; I'm sorted. I've no time for something like an OBE, and wouldn't accept one if it was offered anyway. It would compromise what I do. It would suggest that I now somehow belong to the establishment."
In this still-deserted Indian restaurant in Wilmslow at a little after eight o'clock at night, he sits himself up very straight, his shirt creased, his jacket crinkled, the air of inspirational university lecturer surrounding him like thick fog.
"I don't belong to any establishment," he says.
For more information, or to make a donation, visit: www.jailguitardoors.org.uk
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies