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Music in Prisons

Volume 579: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2014

I am pleased to have been able to secure this debate on music in prisons. I am sorry that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), who has responsibility for prisons, is unable to attend, but he did me the courtesy of speaking to me personally to apologise and I know that he has briefed the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) on the issues that we are debating.

The Prisons Minister is well aware of the efficacy of the arts, and specifically music, as a means for the rehabilitation of prisoners. Research by the National Offender Management Service into the arts in prisons concluded that

“arts projects are effective at improving in-prison behaviour (such as compliance with rules and engagement with the regime) and individual psychological factors (such as depression and a sense of purpose).”

In 2008, a study by Cambridge university stated that

“it is clear that the Music in Prisons project contributes to the Prison Service’s aim to provide ‘safe, secure and decent regimes’”

and it concluded that music projects

“play a role in fulfilling the NOMS ‘Seven Pathways to Reducing Reoffending’.”

I could go on citing evidence on the matter, but I know that the Department and the Minister are well aware of it. As the Prisons Minister said to me in answer to a question in the House on 18 March:

“He is right that music can be a method of rehabilitation.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 637.]

I know, therefore, that the Prisons Minister accepts that that is the case.

Given that well established consensus, I was surprised earlier this year to start receiving letters from prisoners who knew of my interest in music, telling me that new rules on incentives and earned privileges meant that they would no longer be permitted to keep steel-strung guitars in their cells, and they were having to hand them in. One wrote to me

“have you ever visited a prison and seen first-hand the power that music has, in particular learning a musical instrument, to change prisoners’ attitudes and lives for the better?”

I have visited prisons in my former position as a Minister for skills and education, and I have seen the kind of power that such programmes can have on rehabilitating offenders. The prisoner went on to describe how the new restrictions were impacting on prisoners. That is just one of the many representations that I have received.

I raised the matter with the Prisons Minister at Justice questions, and his answer gave me some encouragement that he was prepared to look into it. I was slightly disappointed—I will not put it any more strongly than that at this point—when the follow-up letter that I received from him simply confirmed the policy and did not offer any rationale whatsoever for it. I applied for today’s debate to pick up the thread and find out what it is all about.

Most people who hear about the change in policy assume that some kind of security risk is at its source, but nowhere in his answer to me in the House or in his subsequent letter did the Minister make any such suggestion. It is true that a prisoner might do harm with a guitar or with guitar strings, but that is equally true of nylon guitar strings, the thicker of which—the bass strings—are wound with steel in any case, as the Minister acknowledged in his letter.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. The issue is important, and I support the thrust of his argument. I should make a declaration in relation to the book that I published last year on prison reform, which is in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although we should encourage music in prisons to the greatest extent possible, it is a legitimate and proper part of the prison rehabilitation process that the Government—and, to be fair, the previous Government—have been engaged in to make music part of an incentive programme?

I absolutely accept that proposition, but I will go on to show that I do not think that it applies in this case. I believe that this restriction, however it has happened—perhaps by accident—is without any rationale. I might add that I would offer to send a copy of the hon. Gentleman’s book to some prisoners, so that they could read it, but of course we are not allowed to do that any more.

I have not been able to discover any rhyme or reason for a blanket ban on steel-strung guitars. In fact, the NOMS incentives and earned privileges instruction, which I commend to the hon. Gentleman and which brought the policy into effect from last November, helpfully lists all the restrictions on items approved for prisoners on the standard and enhanced scheme and places a convenient “S” next to any item that is restricted for security reasons. Of course, there is no “S” placed next to the guitar string restriction, so the change is not to do with security.

Why should this really matter? What difference does it make whether prisoners are permitted nylon-strung or steel-strung guitars? I accept that it is not the most important issue in the world, or even in prison policy. For a guitarist, however, there is an obvious difference between nylon-strung and steel-strung guitars, which is not simply to do with the sound that they make or the style of music for which they are suited. Even more crucially, it is to do with the way in which the strings are attached to the body of the guitar, which is completely different in each case. As a result, existing guitars that prisoners have bought out of their prison wages for use in their cells can become redundant, and they have become so in many cases. Prisoners wrote to me to explain that, and I quote from one of those letters:

“There are a lot of devastated guys who are having to hand back electric guitars and steel strung acoustics. Many of them would have saved up over months or years, from their £14.47 per week prison wages, to buy their instruments.”

The vast majority of guitars in prisons are steel strung. The Prisons Minister said in his letter to me that the guitars donated by the Jail Guitar Doors initiative, which was founded by the musician Billy Bragg, are mainly used in organised settings outside the cell. That is correct, but to gain any benefit from a musical instrument, it is necessary to be able to practise. I would have thought that that was the very definition of a purposeful activity, which is what the Government want to incentivise.

I will not, because it is a conversation between me and the Minister, but I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s interest. I would like to use the time that I have, but perhaps he can intervene on the Minister if there is time. The Minister rightly wants to incentivise such purposeful activity, and for that to happen, a prisoner has to have the same sort of guitar available in their cell as they are using in their lessons.

I assume that the Minister has seen the letter in today’s Guardian—I am sure that he is an avid reader of that newspaper—signed by an impressive array of musicians, starting with Billy Bragg. I am sure that we all agree that he has done tremendous work for many years, taking on the mantle of the great Johnny Cash in helping to spread the message of the rehabilitative and redemptive power of music in our prisons. The letter was also supported by guitar legends such as Johnny Marr, formerly of The Smiths—I understand that even the Prime Minister is a big fan—Richard Hawley, formerly of Pulp, and, in this year of the 60th anniversary of the Fender Stratocaster, Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, who owns the Stratocaster with the serial number 0001.

Those musicians understand how music can transform lives. They also understand, as they make clear in their letter, that an ill-thought-through, unnecessary restriction of this kind can have a serious effect in our prisons. In their letter, they ask the Secretary of State to look urgently into the rise of self-inflicted deaths and self-harm in our prisons and to consider whether some of the new restrictions may be a contributory factor. That is not as far-fetched as it may sound to some people. Last year, researchers at the university of St Andrews found that playing a musical instrument, even at moderate levels, can benefit brain functioning. Ines Jentzsch from the university’s school of psychology and neuroscience said of the research:

“Our findings could have important implications as the processes involved are amongst the first to be affected by aging, as well as a number of mental illnesses such as depression.”

Earlier today, I spoke to the fiancée of a prisoner who told me that the prisoners who play guitar in the prison where her fiancé is serving a sentence have been devastated and depressed by the recent decision because, in effect, it meant that they had to hand in their guitars. I want to be charitable to the Minister, and to the absent Prisons Minister, because I get the sense that they probably did not intend this outcome, not least because when I first raised the issue in the House the Prisons Minister told me that he was unaware of the detail of this restriction.

Many other parts of the new restrictions are controversial, including the restrictions on books—to which I alluded earlier—and clothing. I am sure that Ministers will have to look at them again. Nevertheless, this debate is about music, so I urge Ministers to look again at this decision with a view to reinstating prisoners’ permission to have steel-strung guitars in their cells. We have already established that the relevant NOMS document does not name security as a concern, and noise or nuisance cannot be the issue because steel and nylon-strung acoustic guitars make similar levels of noise. If electric guitars are the concern, rather than banning them completely, restrictions could be placed on amplification, not least as it is perfectly possible to insist that such guitars are played through headphones—they can effectively be silent and not disturb anyone. That would be a sensible restriction.

One prisoner who wrote to me said:

“I am not sure why this change in national policy has occurred but, as one prison officer put it, the prisoners who are learning a musical instrument are generally the most well behaved”.

I understand that the Minister, who is deputising for the Prisons Minister, might not be in the position to reverse the policy here and now, but will he report back to the Prisons Minister on this afternoon’s discussion? Will he also ask whether the Prisons Minister will agree—I have reason to think that he will not—to meet me and the musician Billy Bragg, if we can synchronise diaries, to explore the issue further and discuss the possibility of changing the decision?

The Prisons Minister is a reasonable man and I think he has understood that neither I, the prisoners themselves, Billy Bragg nor the other musicians who have supported the campaign are arguing that, when they commit a crime that leads to their imprisonment, prisoners should not lose many of the rights that they would have on the outside. However, we are all arguing that a significant public investment is made in our prisons, and most of the prisoners in them will eventually be released into the community, where they will live among us.

Music is a proven aid to rehabilitation, and restricting access to it will, in the end, cause more problems than can be justified by the as yet unknown reason for such an unnecessary and counter-productive restriction. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response. As an optimist I have every confidence that good sense will eventually prevail and that prisoners will once again be able to play their guitars and prepare for a new beginning when they get out of jail, perhaps by playing and singing the old Bob Dylan song with which I am sure you, Mr Chope, are familiar:

“Any day now, any day now

I shall be released”.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Chope. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) for securing this debate on such an important subject. It is abundantly clear from what he has said that he has great expertise and knowledge on the subject. I assure him that I will ensure that what he has said today will be conveyed to my hon. Friend the Prisons Minister. Also, I am more than happy to facilitate a meeting for him, to the extent that he feels one is necessary after I have said my piece.

This is an important debate. I welcome the opportunity to speak about the important role that music plays in our prisons and set out the position regarding prisoner access to musical instruments. Let me be clear: facilitating access to musical instruments for prisoners is an important part of their rehabilitation. Whether individual prisoners learn to play musical instruments or music is played in a shared environment, such as a prison chaplaincy, music can provide focus, encourage positive social interaction and provide constructive activity.

In chaplaincy, we see activities involving and using music in a range of ways. As well as music being used as part of some of the main acts of worship, a number of chaplaincies have choirs or chapel bands, which allow prisoners to be part of a creative shared experience. They can also help prisoners to develop listening and communication skills and engage with others in a positive way.

In education, there is significant provision for learning about music. The offender learning and skills service, which has been commissioned jointly by the National Offender Management Service and the Skills Funding Agency, works with offenders to identify their learning needs and advise on what learning and training opportunities are available in prisons. Vocational opportunities are available towards the end of a prisoner’s sentence, to ensure that any training undertaken is current and relevant to the local job market on release.

The offender learning and skills service—OLASS—also funds personal and social development, which may include recreational learning, such as music activity. Personal and social development is particularly helpful when engaging with resistant learners who might not participate in more formal learning. In the 2011-12 academic year, there were 580 enrolments on OLASS courses that included music as part of the course title. A range of courses are available, including the awards for music practitioners, in music theory and in sound engineering and music technology.

Aside from learning, prisoners are also able to listen to music in their cells by listening to CDs in their possession or to the radio. As well as the availability of national radio, prison radio is now installed in 102 prisons.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for giving way. I have appeared on prison radio and experienced its quality in Brixton prison, which is one of the hubs for prison radio, so I would like to say first of all that it is doing a fantastic job and should be supported by the Ministry of Justice. Secondly, I can assure the House that although my book, quite rightly, cannot be posted at random to a prisoner by any person, however esteemed, it is available in prisons via the usual channels and is being read.

I am sure that those prisoners who are regular and avid readers of Hansard will take note of that plug for my hon. Friend’s book, which is easily available in the relevant prison libraries. I note what he said about the prison radio service, which is available in many prisons. The Prison Radio Association delivers national prison radio, and prison radio tutors work with prisoners to develop new and innovative content. As well as output that is focused on reducing reoffending and encouraging engagement with education, training and opportunities in prison, music is broadcast. Many individual prison governors also engage with local community and voluntary sector organisations, which facilitate music-based activities.

There is plenty of music to be heard in our prisons. I recognise, however, that the hon. Member for Cardiff West is particularly concerned about changes that we have made to the incentives and earned privileges policy framework and what those changes might mean for prisoners who want to play guitars. It important that I explain the intention behind the changes and what they mean in practice.

The policy on incentives and earned privileges underwent a thorough and detailed review, the first such review for more than 10 years, to ensure that the revised framework would properly address reoffending and that the public could have confidence in it. The review of the policy included extensive consultation with prison operational staff.

Since the changes came into effect on 1 November 2013, the absence of bad behaviour has no longer been enough to earn privileges; now prisoners must also work towards their own rehabilitation and help others. The focus on rehabilitation resulted in numerous other changes to the framework. For example, prisoners can no longer sit in their cells watching television when they should be out working or in education, and they can no longer spend much of their days in the gym.

An important part of our changes was ensuring that prisons operate to a consistent standard in allowing privileges to prisoners who have earned them. That is why we introduced the standardised facilities list, which identifies and limits the items of property that prisoners can retain in their cells, subject to their IEP level. The list is available for each governor to select from as they consider suitable to the specific population, physical fabric and regime of the prison.

The changes have not prevented prisoners from playing musical instruments. The greater the commitment a prisoner shows to the requirements of the IEP framework, the more money they can earn from working, the more they are allowed to spend and the greater the range of property they are allowed to have. Prisoners who work hard, engage and achieve standard and enhanced levels can purchase a musical instrument to keep in their possession at the governor’s discretion. Prisoners who do not engage are not permitted to possess a musical instrument. The standardised facilities list sets out a number of different instruments that prisoners can purchase: for example, a flute, a harmonica or an acoustic guitar.

The hon. Member for Cardiff West is particularly concerned about the position in respect of prisoner access to guitars and the type of strings permitted. Prisoners on the standard and enhanced levels of the IEP framework can be allowed an acoustic guitar with nylon strings. For the bass notes, that can include nylon strings with metal coiled around the outside. Guitar strings can be issued on a one-for-one basis, subject to risk assessments. Full metal guitar strings are not permitted. As I have mentioned, the revised policy was subject to a significant amount of consultation with the operational line and other interested parties. The consultation extended to the contents of the standardised list itself. In the light of security concerns, a decision was made not to allow full metal strings.

I am grateful for that information. As far as I am aware, that is the first time that Ministers have mentioned any security concerns. If that is the case—incidentally, I hope to persuade the Minister that there need not be with regard to nylon strings—why is that not indicated in the National Offender Management Service list of items and restrictions, and why is there no security “S” flag on the document?

I am not saying that there is no security risk with nylon strings, because I think it is acknowledged that there is. It is just felt that there is a greater risk with metal strings. As for the specifics that the hon. Gentleman requires, I am mindful of the time limit on this debate and keen to put as much on record as I can, but I am happy to return to the issue later.

Before the Minister moves on, there are six minutes left and this is the heart of the matter. The NOMS document does not say that there is a security concern. I would be grateful if, following this debate, he would send me the details of the concern and of how it was raised during the consultation, and perhaps indicate why it is not signalled in the NOMS document. However, I am grateful for his earlier offer of a meeting with the Minister to discuss it further.

I am certainly happy to follow up on this debate by supplying the information that the hon. Gentleman has requested and providing the explanations that he has sought.

I am keen to get everything on the record in the limited time that I have. The hon. Gentleman referred to electric guitars, particularly with reference to a letter that he had received. The standardised list does not allow prisoners to have electric guitars in their possession. It was certainly not the case before the standardised facilities list came into effect that prisons routinely allowed prisoners to have electric guitars in their possession; it has always been more usual for prisoners to have access to electric guitars in a supervised setting. I know that charities such as Jail Guitar Doors have donated numerous electric guitars to prisons over the past few years. Those guitars are most often kept in educational or chaplaincy departments for prisoners to use in a supervised environment, rather than kept by individual prisoners. It is important to be clear that none of the changes involved in IEP should have affected the use of electric guitars and other musical instruments in a supervised setting. The changes to IEP involve the property that prisoners can possess in their cells.

Inevitably, when deciding what items prisoners can possess, there will be a variety of views on whether particular items should be allowed. We are clear, however, that the items that we have included on the standardised facilities list provide a suitable range from which governors can select so that prisoners can be rewarded consistently and appropriately for engaging with the requirements of the IEP policy framework and that, with appropriate access to musical instruments, the quality of their lives can be improved and their chances of successful rehabilitation enhanced.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on securing this debate, and I reiterate the assurance that I made at the outset that I will facilitate the meeting he requested with the Prisons Minister and follow up with the outstanding information mentioned in this debate.