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Ballads Behind Bars: How Music is Used as Therapy in Some Australian Prisons

Murray Cook (not to be confused with the former Red Wiggle of the same name) has spent over two decades teaching music inside Australian prisons. For Murray, it’s less about the RAP sheet, and more about getting through to the human behind it.

For many artists, writing and recording an album of original songs is like climbing a mountain. But doing it in prison with people who may have never sung a note? That’s scaling Everest. 

Sydney musician Murray Cook (not to be confused with the former Red Wiggle of the same name and vintage) is the man tasked with fostering music talent in correctional centres.

“I don’t piss in people’s pockets,” says Cook, who has played with Midnight Oil, Mental As Anything, and the Warumpi Band. “To do this type of work you need to be a fair dinkum person and have a good sense of humour because it’s a tough environment to work in.” 

“To do this type of work you need to be a fair dinkum person and have a good sense of humour because it’s a tough environment to work in.” 

For 21 years he taught music at Long Bay, a maximum-security prison and psychiatric hospital in Sydney. During this time, he taught notorious serial killers and underworld figures. 

After his stint teaching at Long Bay ended, he was offered an opportunity to create a music programme with the Community Restorative Centre, a Sydney not-for-profit that supports people affected by the criminal justice system in NSW. Taking cues from British initiatives like Vox Liminis and Jail Guitar Doors, the programme, Songbirds, supports people to write and record original songs while doing time. “It’s been really successful, even though many of these people have never sung into a microphone or written a song before,” Cook says. 

Measuring the success of arts education within prisons is challenging. To fund programmes, state governments usually demand hard data that proves a reduction in recidivism. In Australia, most programmes are delivered in a fragmented way by not-for-profits or private organisations supported by philanthropic funds, which makes assessing outcomes difficult.   

That said, as a qualitative researcher with a PhD in arts education, Dr Linda Lorenza understands the positive impacts arts programmes can have. She was instrumental in establishing Bell Shakespeare Company’s Juvenile Justice programme (an initiative that enables young people in the juvenile justice system to learn and perform Shakespeare’s plays) in 2010 and helped to launch the Australian chapter of Jail Guitar Doors (a programme that provides musical instruments and workshops to people in prison) in early 2020 before the pandemic forced the programme into hibernation.

“It’s all about collaboration, and sharing stories, personal experiences and understanding.”

“Arts programmes give these people self-confidence and help to develop empathy because they’re collaborating with others they wouldn’t normally mix with,” says Lorenza. “It’s all about collaboration, and sharing stories, personal experiences and understanding. People like Cook, the Bell Shakespeare team and I know the impact of these programmes, but because it’s not clearly measurable by a test, there’s less interest in it the higher up the chain you go.”

Visitors can’t take laptops into prisons, so Cook uses a portable 24-track digital recorder, small preamp, and Shure SM58 mics to record. This lo-fi set up creates a unique sound quality that is preserved during post-production. “I’ve recorded in cells, libraries, you name it,” says Cook. “In some of these places you get a really good sound as you get a bit of echo or natural reverb.”

From reggae to rap, metal, blues and beyond, the participants are encouraged to explore all music genres. “I’ve worked with teenagers who love hip-hop and guys in their 70s who are into Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. Then there’s the guys in the middle who grew up on Nirvana. It’s a wonderful spread of people,” says Cook, who adds that there’s often some reluctance to give it a go.  

“To show any emotion in jail is a real no-no. Anything can be used against you. If you say you love your daughter or mum, somebody might threaten to harm them to extort money out of you. I admire these people who’ve performed. They’ve put their heart on the line with gut-wrenchingly honest songs.”

After capturing the participants’ vocals and/or guitar, he takes the recordings back to his “home studio” (his kitchen table) where bass, harmonica, keyboards, and percussion are added. His daughters also chip in with backing vocals. “We like to leave the little rough bits in,” he says. “We don’t want to make it too perfect by using autotune or effects too much.” 

Far from just being a way for prisoners to pass the time, Cook believes that writing and performing music is cathartic. Where some might have previously resorted to aggression or violence as a way of expressing their emotions, the music provides them with another, healthier outlet. “I tell them that music is a good way to let off steam without hurting anyone,” says Cook. “[…] There are other ways of letting out that anger and hurt: by writing a song about it.”

“Can’t Stop the Clocks” written and performed by women in the Mary Wade Correctional Centre reflects the intense feelings of loss and longing many people feel while in prison: “I miss my hometown, I miss my friends / Will this torture ever end? / I’m getting older, it’s getting colder / I’ve got the weight of the world on my shoulders / It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Rates of childhood trauma are extremely high among people in prison. And while Cook admits it can be challenging to break through the tough exteriors of the people he works with, he believes a little positive reinforcement can make all the difference. “When I say that I’m proud of them for working hard to learn a guitar chord, often it’s the first time someone has ever praised them,” he says. “It’s a huge boost to their self-esteem.”

Each year a Songbirds CD is co-produced by Cook and Jim Moginie (a founding member of Midnight Oil) at Oceanic Studio. Many of the songs are also broadcast on Jailbreak Radio, a half-hour show aired on community radio stations.  

Cook believes that the programme is a genuine stepping-stone to achievement on the outside. Several participants have formed their own bands and found success gigging and busking after their release. “Music is a part of their recovery. It takes a lot of guts to write a song about their experience,” he says. “But it’s also a great way to make money without having to kowtow.”

Murray Cook with Jim Moginie

Cook in the studio with his colleague, Jim Moginie. (Photo: Maya Luana)

For most of 2019, 25-year-old James was serving an eight-month sentence in Broken Hill Correctional Centre. When he heard the Songbirds programme was coming in, he signed himself up without hesitation. “I was pretty excited,” says James. “We didn’t have much to do in there and when Murray came in to do the programme, we all pretty much jumped at it.”

Unlike most other participants, James had already written a few songs before being incarcerated. He’d initially been inspired by his father, who played guitar while he was growing up. “I’ve played and sung for ages,” he says. “I sang in the school choir and I started playing the guitar when I was eight years old.”

Two of his original songs feature on the second Songbirds album including “Goodbye”, a heartfelt tribute he performed at the funeral of his best mate in 2013. Hearing the recorded versions of his songs was a special moment. Though he’d tried his hand at “backyard” recordings in the past, he’d never managed to achieve the same level of sound quality. “The recordings are awesome,” he says. “I still sit there and listen to them.”

“It’s great to have a good memory from inside and not a bad one.”

Once James was released, it took some time to readjust to life on the outside. Though he was originally anxious about being judged, he eventually found work at a restaurant, and enjoys performing at open mic nights at local pubs. He’s even been booked to play at a wedding next year.

Reflecting on his time inside, James says that the Songbirds programme was a highlight of an otherwise difficult chapter in his life. “Without Murray coming in, it would have been another boring week in prison,” he says. “It would be good to have programmes like that more often. There’s heaps of people that could benefit from it. It’s great to have a good memory from inside and not a bad one.”

The programme also runs art workshops, with participants’ artworks displayed at Boom Gate Gallery, a space that showcases art by inmates in NSW Correctional Centres. A grant from the Judith Neilson Institute will soon see professional actors deliver theatre programmes in prisons.

“There’s so much talent in there,” says Cook. “Some of these guys can make good money from art once they get out. They can change their lives, get a nice place to live and make money from their art instead of going to Centrelink and getting humiliated because they’ve got a criminal record.” 

“Everybody has a good side, you just need to look for the light in people.” 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent around 3.3% of Australia’s population, yet account for about 29% of the prison population (as of June 2020). With Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rates increasing 41% between 2006 and 2016, this over-representation is only rising. 

Cook’s history of playing with Indigenous artists like Mixed Relations, Marlene Cummins, and Leah Purcell has helped him to build rapport with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the programme. 

“As a white person, I’ve been blessed to have this wonderful relationship with Aboriginal musicians for the last 30 years,” says Cook. “I lived in Darwin and spent time in Arnhem Land with George [Burarrwanga] from the Warumpi Band.”

Participants from diverse cultures and backgrounds often collaborate on songs, which helps to foster cooperation and tolerance—things in short supply in prison yards. “You get Lebanese guys working with Asians, and bikies working with Kooris,” says Cook. “These people would never associate in the yards because they’re all in different gangs and hate each other’s guts, but they’ll come in and work on a song together.”

Cook’s had his fair share of tough customers along the way, but he believes that seeing the person behind the RAP (Records of Arrests and Prosecutions) sheet is important. “So many crimes are committed when people are off their face on drugs and alcohol,” he says. “But when they’re sober, they’re average people with good hearts. My attitude is that everybody has a good side, you just need to look for the light in people.” 

“We … will miss your steadfast presence, your good nature, and enduring commitment to providing that monumental bottom to the ‘Top.’