In a brightly lit loft above the chapel of HMP Birmingham, singer Julianne Bastock is asking local business people to miaow up and down a musical scale.
There are nervous smiles among the smartly dressed men and women who have come to see for themselves how a scheme to run choirs in prisons can help tackle reoffending rates and connect former prisoners with employers.
As the visitors struggle to emulate Bastock’s rising and falling warm-up sounds, a prisoner breaks the tension. “If you get this right, you get to stay,” he says above the disharmony.
He is part of a choir that Bastock helps to run for two hours every week at the inner city prison. Today, instead of the usual practice, the singers are performing to potential employers – and then singing with them.
The pitch by the charity Beating Time that set up this choir, and others at separate prisons, is simple: businesses grappling with skills shortages and seeking to deliver on their promises to become more socially engaged, should look no further than prison choirs for people to employ and train up.
The charity has been running prison choirs for three years and now has joined forces with the Institute of Directors West Midlands to launch a jobs scheme dubbed Business Beating Time. The IoD’s director for the region, Calum Nisbet, says he was approached by the charity not long after the Brexit vote, when businesses were already fretting about an exodus of foreign workers.
“It was the concept that we have got this untapped pool of workforce at a time of uncertainty around where our workforce was coming from,” says Nisbet.
He sees a clear financial case for more employers to take on prison leavers. “It costs £36,000 to have someone in prison for a year. Locally, 2,400 are released a year of which 27% have jobs to go to. That means 1,752 don’t have jobs to go to and unsurprisingly between 48 and 60% of people reoffend within the first year. Which is just a bad return on investment.
“The prison population is invisible to the business community, so what can we do about changing that?”
Nationally, only one in four people have a job to go to on release from prison, according to government figures cited by the Prison Reform Trust charity. The trust also notes that one in five employers say they exclude or are likely to exclude prison leavers from the recruitment process.
The Birmingham pilot scheme was inspired by a US jobs programme first pioneered by Michigan-based Butterball Farms. Known as the 30-2-2 initiative, it set out to get 30 employers from the company’s hometown to hire a minimum of two former prisoners and track their job performance for two years.
On the way to the HMP Birmingham event with business leaders, Beating Time’s co-founder, Jane Evans, explains how the UK scheme works.
“It’s getting new employers, getting them to bring a friend, and getting new types of jobs as well.,” she says. “The idea is, if we can get 30 companies that have never employed ex-offenders before to employ ex-offenders, then the following year they bring a friend, so we have 60 people employing and then the following year it is 120.”
Fellow co-founder, Heather Phillips, chips in, saying: “And then people see it’s working and they copy us. We can’t do it all.”
Over the past year the pair have worked with the IoD West Midlands to corral business bosses into visiting HMP Birmingham, hearing its choir, singing along and then learning about how they could employ men leaving the prison.
The choirs were first started to tackle mental health problems in prisons. The decision to branch out to employment came out of a low point for the charity, says Evans, a former corporate finance director at KPMG. A couple of former choir members had ended up back in prison after their release and Evans and Phillips, a former partner in a City law firm, decided to reassess their project.
“We just thought, ‘Why are we doing all this?’ And we were struggling to get funding. Our background is very much in the City and with the backgrounds and contacts we had we felt it makes ultimate sense to look at jobs,” she says.
They realised a key factor in preventing reoffending was for those leaving prison to have a steady job. They also felt their choirs provided prisoners with important skills for future work. For employers the weekly practice sessions offered an easy way to meet potential employees and to get references from the musical directors.
“Singing improves your mental health, provides a sense of inclusion and it develops all the soft employability skills such as team working, communication, focus,” says Evans.
So she and Phillips called 176 local bosses, inviting them to meet the choir. An initial concert inside G4S-run Birmingham prison in November went well, says Phillips. But then plans were thwarted by one of the worst prison riots in decades.
“We all sang our socks off. Something Inside So Strong, together in perfect disharmony,” says Phillips.
“We didn’t even have to say anything to the employers because they could see the potential of these people and were desperate for them to have a second chance. But then about two weeks later they had a riot and they all got shipped out.”
Since then, Birmingham has changed director but the choir has resumed and so have the plans to use it as a path into work.
One of the employers at that first concert was Leo McMulkin, chief operating officer for the the facilities management company Acivico. He describes the events as awe inspiring and says he came away keen to convince his colleagues and other employers to get involved.
He also concedes there are more selfish motives for Acivico to recruit from prisons. “We’ve got such a shortage of skills across all industries,” he says. Acivico will be one of the first employers to offer a former offender a job under the scheme, having lined up a cleaner role for the autumn.
Lee Davies, who has worked at Birmingham prison for 18 years and is now head of learning and skills there, believes the choir is helping prisoners get ready for going into work once released.
“In prison there has to be a purpose. This is one of the ways to develop that purpose,” he says.
“There’s a sort of team work, the communication skills and that inner confidence that’s built through the choir.”
Bastock, who runs the choir with fellow musician Pete Churchill, echoes that. “Their friendships improve, their inclusion socially. It affects other aspects of their life beyond the choir. They feel that they have got a role,” she says.
One of the choir members, Tudor, serving a 12-year sentence for conspiracy to import cocaine, says the rehearsals allow the men to drop their usual prison persona and prepare for life on release.
“The environment we live in here is very obviously male dominated, very loud, very negatively loud and for me this is an emotional release. I like to come here and make a noise for the right reasons,” he says.
“This is a little bit of normality. It gives you an idea of what it’s like on the outside.”
Source: The Guardian