I sat in a small rehearsal studio with some of the loveliest people in Glasgow last week.
Possibly some of the loveliest people in the world.
We played some tunes together. Talked about songs and structure. Cracked jokes about nuts key changes. All the things.
One guy had started playing bass only a few weeks earlier.
Others were working musicians.
But everybody brought something.
Alongside the noise of voices and instruments.
The act of singing together, of playing music in a room, and of writing together can be wildly connecting.
Not just in a therapeutic, hearts bouncing off the walls type way (although oy vey it can be ALL of that) but in terms of community.
And if into that space of making music, you invite people from a whole bunch of different backgrounds, including people who have spent time in prison, and people whose professional work is somehow prison related, and you ask that group to make something together, the impact can be profound. For everybody.
I guess I fell a bit in love with Glasgow.
Over the last five weeks, as I have sunk deeper into the question of ‘what to do’ about post-release, and recidivism I have found myself drifting off into territory that is situated somewhere kinda down the road, and round the corner a bit from where I thought I was heading.
The whole point of my Churchill research project is to try and unpack what ‘best practice’ in post-release looks like. And although after all of these weeks of traveling, much of what I have grown to understand about the need for adequate resourcing and funding of basic transitional and reintegration services still holds, I guess what has become apparent is that it is not nearly enough to frame this conversation in terms of best practice in service provision.
So often – too often, services that provide support to people on release from custody are funded to fix people. To address offending behaviour. To rehabilitate. Every funding submission I have ever written for my organisation (and that’s about a trillion over the years) has in one way or another suggested that this underlies what it is that we want to do.
The individual rehabilitation of people on release from prison has become the template around which consensus between the funded community sector and government now exists. It is easy. It is the template that philanthropists understand. It is the template for every media story on post-release. It is the quick explanation at the pub. But it is too often a lazy explanation. And even when it’s not lazy, it is not nearly enough.
Because once again it situates offending at the centre of the conversation; as if understanding criminality and risk are the only explanatory tools we require to ease the grip of imprisonment on those groups who are relentlessly locked up.
There are structural and cultural threads that connect incarcerated people globally. There are threads of poverty, and disconnection and and colonisation and racism. The demographics of who goes to prison are not contested by anybody. Yet when people are released we tend to ignore those threads. We adopt instead an individualised approach. We ask people to take full personal responsibility for their crime and for their imprisonment. If they’re lucky we might offer some service that is funded to assist them take this responsibility. And if they’re especially lucky, the services that are progressive might wrap concrete support around this process; housing, employment and education assistance.
And all of this is vital. People should take responsibility for their crimes. Services should be funded to assist this process. But at some point, we need to call bullshit on this being enough. We need to stop turning our backs on our structural understandings of imprisonment. And we need to start thinking carefully about what can happen at the level of community and culture to shift this. So that the process of reintegration stops just being an individual struggle and starts being something that all of us are part of.
Because if you stop framing the conversation in terms of curing and fixing and start thinking about it in terms of building community, you find yourself on very different ground. The kind of ground occupied by Vox Liminis the small but vital group of folk in Glasgow who are sitting in rooms in and out of prisons writing tunes together.
And I know, I KNOW, writing songs isn’t everyone’s bag (WEIRDOS). And playing music in a room isn’t going to solve the affordable housing crisis in Sydney, or resolve discriminatory employment practices. And there are frequently limits in terms of the scalability of grass roots community building projects. But these small projects are becoming for me, more and more significant in the landscape of reintegration services and practices.
Because of what we can learn from them about approach, social movement, and about building connection and community. There is something radical and deeply pragmatic in terms of reintegration about finding ways to create spaces so that the common ground that exists between people (Social workers! Formerly incarcerated people! Academics! Musicians!..) can expand into something larger than all we might imagine divides. (And beautiful! The tunes are freakin’ beautiful…check their work out here).