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By a lonely prison wall: how a choir in Mountjoy is unlocking prisoner potential

The InHouse Harmony Choir joins civilians in harmony with inmates. ‘We have the most amazing conversations’

Last week a group gathered in the chapel of Mountjoy Prison’s progression unit for an unusual event. Many attending hadn’t been in a prison before, but were there for a symposium on music and incarceration organised by Mountjoy Prison, SOLAS, Wexford native Dr Áine Mangaoang, an associate professor in popular music at the University of Oslo, and her colleague Dr Lucy Cathcart Frödén.

The pair are undertaking a research project, Prisons of Note, which explores the role of music in the criminal justice system. Their research is taking place across three countries – Ireland, Norway and Iceland – and in Ireland they have chosen to focus on how prisoners interact with music at Mountjoy and Cork Prison.

At Mountjoy’s progression unit, there’s a low-security regime and a strong focus on rehabilitation and preparation for release. Music plays a role through the educational opportunities that the prisoners have access to, and a choir that performed at the symposium: Mountjoy InHouse Harmony choir.

InHouse Harmony is what’s known as an “inside/outside” choir, as its membership includes men serving sentences as well as employees of Solas, the agency that oversees further education and training in Ireland. The relationship between the groups began in 2019, when the Solas choir performed at a Ted talk in Mountjoy alongside a choir from the Progression Unit.

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“We practised separately ... We had an hour’s rehearsal, and then just got on with it,” says Caroline Jones, people engagement manager at Solas. They all felt a connection was made immediately, and soon formed InHouse Harmony, which includes 14 women from Solas and seven prisoners. They practise weekly inside the prison.

The early days required some adjustment. Jones had been to prisons before through her work, but the other women hadn’t. “I frightened the life out of the women because I was just thinking about getting through the scanners quickly, and I said ‘Don’t bring anything with you’. But I never said why,” she recalls of their initial visit. “And they thought, ‘Oh my god, we’re going to be robbed’.”

At first, choir practice was like the Ballroom of Romance, says Jones, with the men on one side of the room and the women on the other. “People were actually quite frightened about ‘How do we behave with people who we perceive to be different from us?’ And that has changed phenomenally. We don’t leave here and leave [the men] here. They’re in our hearts. It’s so relational and there’s so much tenderness within the choir. And there’s challenges ... It’s just really open and honest. Every single human being in that choir has healed in some way.”

Prison is very harsh. It’s stone walls, it’s iron bars, it’s uniforms ... So then to meet a bunch of women who are interested in getting to know who you are was very different

Each choir practice includes a group exercise, singing and then an hour of chat. “We have the most amazing conversations. Sometimes it’s just complete slagging. If you want to come to Mountjoy, you have to get over your PC-ness and everything else,” says Jones. They do work around mental health, wellbeing and psychological safety. An ongoing survey showed the members’ mental health had improved by being in the choir.

It’s unusual to have an inside/outside choir, and it’s unusual to have an event like the symposium, with prisoners speaking on stage about their experiences. Alongside performances of songs such as Lean on Me and The Auld Triangle, clips were shown from a creative documentary developed with director Oonagh Murphy, which outlined the men’s prison experiences and the impact of the choir on them.

James (not his real name) is a choir member and prisoner. “At the start I wouldn’t have spoken a lot, because I wouldn’t have known how to speak to them,” he says of the women. “Prison is very harsh. It’s stone walls, it’s iron bars, it’s uniforms ... So then to meet a bunch of women who are interested in getting to know who you are was very different. And so it was a slow-thawing kind of thing ... All I knew was prison life, and this is what I’ve grown up with. You’re constantly gauging ‘Is this the right way to behave, is this the right thing to say?’ Being part of the choir, it’s just taken away those inhibitions.” When he is released from prison, he says he knows the women will be there to support him.

Prisons of Note comes out of Mangaoang’s decade-long research into music in prisons, and she hopes it will provide a much-needed insight into the impact of music on prisoners, rehabilitation and recidivism in Ireland. The project will run until 2026.

The voice of the victims of crime is important to the project. “They’re a huge part of this research, and of this kind of work,” says Mangaoang. “There’s quite a few scholars whose work is very influential for us, people like Mary Cohen and Fergus McNeill, who have researched how music can be used as a form of restorative justice in communities, and ways that music can help address some of the issues around crime in society.”

There are tricky parts to doing this research. One is how to measure success, while addressing the related presumption that if a prisoner takes part in a music programme, then they won’t reoffend. Mangaoang says she and Cathcart Frödén are looking at the wider picture. “It’s a societal problem here that we have about the systems not working, people not getting the support that they need, or there aren’t maybe the structures out there being provided. So if the person does end up back in prison, it’s not really a story of failure on the part of any one thing, but is more indicative of how difficult it is upon release to make things work.”

Paddy Moran, assistant governor in charge of the progression unit in Mountjoy, says it’s rare to meet a prisoner who doesn’t have some type of potential. “So to be able to offer [the choir] to a small, limited number because of things like overcrowding, it can be a bit frustrating. We would love to be able to offer it to larger numbers of prisoners so that we can help contribute to when people get out, that they can avoid coming back in, and they can feel like they can contribute to their own family or community outside,” he says.

But there may be more challenges ahead – due to overcrowding, sex offenders are to be housed in the progression unit. Whether this will have an impact on the InHouse Harmony choir remains to be seen.

Music plays a role in Mountjoy beyond the choir – the day also marked the launch of The Progression Sessions, an album of original songs written, recorded and produced by the students and teachers of the progression unit school. All proceeds from the album, which is on sale via Bandcamp, will go to St Vincent de Paul.

It’s hard to describe the benefits of the InHouse Harmony choir to people, says Jones. “Debussy says the music is not in the note, it’s in the space between the notes. To me, it’s the space between the notes that have allowed us to become who we are.”