Britten Pears Arts has an over 20-year relationship with HMP Warren Hill, a male adult prison situated only a 15-minute drive from Snape Maltings. The music programme aims to create positive experiences for prisoners, help raise their confidence, and provide a space to build new skills by collaborating with professional musicians. Here Community Producer Catherine Bullough gives an account of our latest project, and we release new work by prisoners created as part of the programme. New illustrations by Jennifer Pitchers brilliantly capture the spirit of collaboration and creativity over the week, whilst adhering to strict no-photos rules of the prison.

I’ve built my confidence by getting up in front of people and performing my lyrics. Most of all, just being around people from the outside has been nice.

Prisoner

The impact of the pandemic on prisons has been enormous, with shifting and prolonged lockdown measures disrupting the regular regime and prohibiting external visitors. Over the last two years, the Community team have worked closely with the Arts team at Warren Hill, who have worked tirelessly to adapt and provide prisoners with a creative outlet during lockdown. This included curating a series of song writing resources, and producing 10 films by a variety of artists which were aired on WayOut TV (an in-cell learning and educational resource) to prisons across the UK.

One piece of feedback that really stood out to me was from one of the prisoners who explained that he had remembered what his voice sounded like, how to use it and how much joy singing brings him.

Carnell Cook, Britten Pears Arts artistic team

In August 2021, our team were allowed back into the prison in Stage two of their covid-recovery programme, and we delivered taster sessions for each ‘cohort’ of the prison. We noticed that prisoners were coming forward who had never engaged with Britten Pears Arts before, and with this came a huge mix of experience – from those who had never considered themselves to be musical, to those who played their instruments every week in the prison band.

My highlight was recording the song I had written and the feedback from others regarding it. And working and watching other people grow more confident in a recording environment.

Prisoner

What emerged from the men who attended was a desire to write and submit musical entries to the Koestler Awards, a national awards programme to encourage prisoners, secure hospital patients and immigration detainees to take part in the arts. They also wanted to explore various musical genres, writing original songs and learning the guitar. We designed our first post-pandemic project, which would culminate in a week-long writing and recording project in February 2022. Unfortunately in December our sessions were postponed again as covid-cases increased.

I wanted to learn how to write music, when I get out I want to carry on. It’ll be my next project.

Prisoner


Listen to ten amazing tracks by prisoners in HMP Warren Hill in collaboration with artists from Britten Pears Arts

Our week-long recording project was finally able to take place in March 2022, coinciding with Warren Hill moving to Stage one of their covid-recovery programme. What we underestimated was that for many of the cohort, this was the first time seeing their peers in months, let alone having the opportunity to hear and participate in music-making. The impact of being back together in the same room and having focussed time dedicated to music-making felt incredibly significant. The artist team, led by Yvette Riby-Williams (BPA Community Ambassador), consisting of two guitarists, a singer/songwriter, a drummer and producer, and a recording engineer, had the task of making sure that the prisoners felt confident to share and develop their creative ideas.

The week was awesome, I learned a lot and had a great experience I would never have normally had. Best musical experience I’ve had in prison.

Prisoner

I enjoyed playing and improvising with other musicians, poets and singers. Loved it all, even the mistakes!

Prisoner

Some prisoners arrived on day one with a clear sense of exactly what they wanted to record, and others wanted time to develop and realise their talent over the week. Some worked on tracks individually and some in larger groups – ranging from producing and beat-making, drumming, playing bass, electric and acoustic guitar, singing and rapping. There were very special moments throughout the week and some huge personal breakthroughs – such as one resident who spent the week working solely on his bass guitar playing (a new skill he wanted to develop), and by the end of the project was recorded on one of the final tracks.

I am so proud of our partnership spanning over 20 years, and the week of music we have just enjoyed. The engagement of our community highlights in every aspect why the Arts and our relationship is so important.

Matt Deal, Head of Reducing Reoffending at HMP Warren Hill

This week’s been a breath of fresh air, a really positive vibe breaking the normal prison day.

Prisoner

There was a huge-shared sense of accomplishment despite each piece being vastly different, and the platform to write about whatever they wanted to brought a sense of freedom. What really shone through was the huge amount of creativity and support for one another, and in our ‘listening party’ on day five, everyone celebrated one another’s contributions to the project.

I learnt more about recording and how the mixer desk works, my song writing improved and working with the Britten Pears crew I learnt how to develop my recording.

Prisoner

Each prisoner had the opportunity to submit their tracks for the Koestler Awards, and we were thrilled to submit 10 tracks by the end of the week. Since March, the tracks have been professionally mastered and distributed to the participants on a CD, along with a certificate for taking part, and we’re eagerly awaiting to hear feedback from Koestler in the summer.

Our work in prisons is generously supported by Clive and Eileen Schlee, Britten Pears Arts Criminal Justice Circle and The Nichol Young Foundation.

Footnote: Did you know our founders Benjamin Britten Britten and Peter Pears performed a recital at Hollesley Bay prison in 1952, in aid of their new gymnasium? The programme included works by Purcell, Handel, Butterworth and Bridge. To learn more about our founders, explore Archive Treasures.