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Giving Inmates the Chance to Sing

By Nicola Smith on April 28, 2021 in News

Better than watching Netflix. Photo: Maya Luna

Prisoners across New South Wales are being given a chance to rehabilitate through the arts in a program led by the Community Restorative Centre that started at Long Bay Correctional Facility.

Maroubra local Murray Cook works on the program that just released its second compilation album, Songbirds 2.
“A lot of those people had never sung into a microphone before or even written a song, but when they get their songs recorded and we play it back to them you should see the look on their faces,” Mr Cook said.

All the songs on the album were written, developed and recorded by inmates in corrective institutions throughout the state, from Long Bay to Broken Hill, during the Community Restorative Centre’s songwriting workshops.

The songs range in style from Koori bush ballads through to spoken word, gospel, blues, reggae, heavy rock, metal and rap, featuring hard-lived, honest lyrics from deep within the heart.
The program incorporates Mr Cook’s 25 years of experience, along with the help of other Eastern Beaches locals including Maroubra musician Adam Blacksmith.

Mr Cook taught music classes at Long Bay from 1995 until the Baird government removed many full-time teachers, including Mr Cook, from correctional facilities under the Better Prisons reform.
However, the Community Restorative Centre now reaches a wide range of prisoners across New South Wales with their songwriting workshops, which Mr Cook believes have many benefits for inmates.

“It’s usually a gateway for literacy,” Mr Cook explained, “they come in and pick up a guitar and a brush, then they do literacy and then they’re doing their HSC.”

“It’s a really great way of letting off steam and building self-esteem without hurting anything, and it can even give them a source of income when they leave the system.”

The program has expanded to incorporate art and theatre workshops, which have been so successful that Corrective Services have started to incorporate music and art into their strategic plans.
The songs on Songbirds 2, which were produced and recorded with the help of Midnight Oil’s James Moginie, have proven to be not only cathartic for the inmates writing but also some genuinely good music.

“You can’t go wrong really, it’s people writing about their life and it’s straight from the heart. It’s letting them process things. You can’t really show emotion in prison, but somehow in a song it’s okay to do it, people respect that,” Mr Cook told The Beast.

Inmates also receive a copy of the album that they can send to their loved ones, providing a meaningful way of connecting with those at home.

In the face of COVID-19 restrictions, Mr Cook was able to record a video version of his songwriting program that inmates can now access through tablets that have been rolled out across the state.
The high-quality artwork produced through the Songbirds Art Workshop is on display at the Boom Gate Gallery on Anzac Parade, Malabar, which also sells copies of the albums.
People can support the program by visiting the gallery or by purchasing the album at songbirds.bandcamp.com.

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