In my second year on the Service Design course at the Royal College of Art (RCA), I was keen to explore the intersection of design thinking, social change, and enterprise.
At the time, I had spent 18 months undertaking extensive research into the UK prison system, collecting insights from prisoners, officers and governors. These investigations helped me to test my assumptions and develop an understanding of the need for design thinking in prison and how best to apply it. Given considerable support by the RCA’s head of service design, Nick DeLeon, and Neil Sartorio and his team from EY, we worked on an initiative that is now operating in four UK prisons.
We created a record label, In House Records, which works in partnership with Universal Records, Fender Guitars, Roland Instruments, the Ministry of Justice, and HMP Elmley. The label’s goal is to help improve prisoners’ attitude and behaviour by providing work experience with transferable skills and industry-accredited qualifications, all under the umbrella of the record industry, which is able to capture prisoners’ imaginations and fuel their commitment. Outside prison, the label seeks to reduce reoffending and create safer, crime-free communities.
Beginning to see the light
Whilst there is nothing unusual about setting up a record label, the application of focusing on prisoners’ experiences is groundbreaking. We focus on what’s strong – not what’s wrong – and we use “restorative storytelling” to help prisoners make sense of their lives by framing it all with music.
In and of itself, the music offers genuine benefits for reducing anxiety and stress, which means that we are able to positively affect the rehabilitation culture in prisons and help prisoners take control of their future.
Last month, in front of a proud audience of friends and family, as well as 40 trainee prison officers, a vibrant showcase for the pioneering record label demonstrated previously hidden or undiscovered talents. The cofounders of the label confidently performed a set-list of their own songs, hitting the right notes between fun, camaraderie and, at times, brutally honest and confessional narratives.
We encouraged the prisoners to recount their interests and experiences through restorative storytelling, where past experiences are explored and skills that the men once viewed as “bad” can be repurposed for good. This process allows prisoners to look on the past not as a waste of time but as a mix of bad choices, salvaging skills that can be used in better ways.
The label is able to offer opportunities to songwriters, managers, producers and performers. HMP Elmley has seen some of their formerly more passive prisoners not just taking part but actually leading the label. The men have also been laying down tracks for National Prison Radio, which seeks to promote In House Records by playlisting three new singles every month. The idea is for the label to expand across the UK prison network.
My life was changed by rock’n’roll
Those who participate in the label have since met with fewer problems in prison. The negative entries on their personal records have been reduced by 30% and they’ve had almost 40% fewer adjudications, while they’ve seen an incredible 428% increase in positive entries.
When I began my research 18 months ago, I had no idea I would end up running a record label from prison. Since August 2017, I have spent more working days in prison than outside. It is incredibly draining and tiring, but it provides the fuel and motivation to keep me going.
The difference we are already making is very encouraging to me and also to prison staff. The prison officer Tom Cunningham told me: “for me personally, the label has been the best part of my nine-year career in the prison service. Working with men who want to change and be the best versions of themselves has had a positive effect on my attitude.”
When a prison officer is telling me that our record label is the best thing in almost a decade of experience in the prison service, you start to take notice and begin to realise that change is taking place for prison staff as well as prisoners. Of huge encouragement to me is the support of HMP Elmley’s governor – referred to as “Number One” – who cites the label as helping staff recognise a different way of approaching rehabilitation.
In House Records began life in the research phase of a service design project and is now spreading to several UK prisons, changing the lives of prisoners and staff alike. That’s incredibly humbling.
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