… defined as ‘the habit of relapsing into crime.’ Also popularly used to describe the situation where prisoners, once released from jail, soon find themselves back behind bars.
Well, that’s exactly what happened to us last Friday. No sooner had we been released from the clutches of HMP High Down, than we found ourselves being processed back into custody and this time it was serious.
This time, we had to empty our pockets of everything, go through airport-style scanners and then we were tagged and branded! (When I say ‘branded’, I am perhaps guilty of a little bit of exaggeration, or perhaps a modicum of poetic licence. We were actually stamped with invisible ink, that only showed up under ultra-violet light. It didn’t actually burn itself into our skin!)
So why were we back in jail? Was it because we had been caught stealing the cutlery from the restaurant at lunchtime? Was it because the cheque that I wrote to pay for lunch had bounced at the bank? No, we were going back to jail to watch a musical.
“A what?”, I hear you cry. Yes, that’s right, a musical.
Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce to you, the Pimlico Opera Company!
Since 1991, this inspiring company has been bringing music into prisons. Thanks to the support and encouragement of the very enlightened Governor of High Down Prison, Pimlico Opera had just spent the last four weeks casting, setting, rehearsing and staging its own production of Les Misérables within the walls of the prison. We were there on opening night of a week long run.
Most of the principal roles were taken by members of the opera company, but some of the lesser roles and most of the chorus were drawn from the prisoners themselves. For four solid weeks, prisoners and their operatic visitors had been incarcerated in the gym of the prison, as the show started to take shape.
At lunchtimes, the visitors would go to the Clink restaurant for lunch and the prisoners would go back to their cells, before resuming in the afternoons for more rehearsal.
The opera company principals were, of course, all professional singers, but for these four weeks they were also singing teachers and acting coaches to a group of men, who, for the most part had never sung, never acted and for many of them never even stood on a stage in front of an audience before.
The effect was electric! A brillaint show!
None of the prisoners who had solo singing roles would win a singing competition in the near future, but what they lacked in tunefulness, they more than made up for in commitment to their roles.
The show ran for two hours without an interval and at the end, the entire audience of about 250 people rose to its feet. A standing ovation! Not a few members of the audience had tears in their eyes.
The principals came out to acknowledge their applause and then moved aside.
Then the prisoners came forward to take their bow and suddenly the professionals were nowhere to be seen. They had left the stage, and the limelight, entirely to the prisoners. The audience cheered as a group of about twenty men grinned and laughed and hugged each other in the sheer excitement of having achieved something that none of them would have thought possible four weeks previously.
In a short speech at the end, the governor, an impressive woman in her forties, spoke with great humanity about the importance of what we had just seen. She was in charge of a prison of 1200 prisoners and didn’t underestimate the logistical and organisation difficulty of allowing an outside opera company to come into the prison on a daily basis to work with prisoners, Not to mention challenges around getting audiences of 200 to 300 people in and out of the prison for the each performance.
But she was entirely supportive of the whole enterprise, because she saw her role not only as keeping prisoners in prison but also trying to ensure that, at the end of their sentences, they didn’t come back. She said that, for some of the prisoners who had performed for us, this will have been one of the very few times in their lives when the could feel proud of themselves and what they had achieved. Lack of confidence and lack of self esteem we both major contributory factors in offending behaviour.
As she concluded her remarks, a prison officer came forward and whispered in her ear.
“Thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen,” she said. “I’ve just been informed that the prisoners have now all been safely returned to their blocks, so we can now release you!”
The centre pages of the programme for the show contained a quotation that summed up what is going on at HMP High Down.
“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country. A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state and even of convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart-searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry of all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts towards the discovery of curative and regenerating processes and an unfaltering faith that there is a treasure, if only you can find it, in the heart of every person – these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored up strength of a nation, and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it.”
And who said that? Winston Churchill, House of Commons 1910.