HMP Featherstone Men’s Prison, Wolverhampton (Dec 2017)

Photos by Maria Farrelly and Felix Cannadam

Spirit of Songwriting

I once heard the author Gregory Boyle say in a lecture that we go to the margins not just to make a difference but to make ourselves different. These words really stuck with me. I felt a calling to work in prisons after visiting a women’s jail in Gloucester last year. Many of the women were battling drug addiction, and overcoming trauma from domestic violence and childhood abuse. Music lessons were a way of building their confidence and expressing themselves and I felt songwriting aswell as vocal coaching and learning instruments would be a useful process. Songwriting can be emotionally healing and cathartic. It is a form of alchemy, that when spirit is allowed to flow through, magic is made, even in the darkest of places.

I approached HMP Featherstone and asked if I could run my first course there last December. I’ve since ran four courses and one at a women’s prison in Staffordshire. As Songwriter in Residence at HMP Featherstone, I deliver six-day courses, which grant a qualification and certificate to inmates accredited by Milton Keynes College.

The workshops are called ‘Spirit of Songwriting’ which is an acronym for ‘SOS’ – a call for help. Music in prisons is said to reduce reoffending by 70% and the aim of the course is to help rehabilitate prisoners, through creative writing and musical expression, with a focus on personal and spiritual development.

The workshops teach the art and craft of songwriting; song structure, lyric writing, matching melody to words and examining the works of a wide range of songwriters over the history of time. We learn how to express feelings into songs, collaborate with others and work with a live recording sound engineer to produce music that is authentic and true. The workshops build self-esteem and give a sense of hope and humanity to prisoners, helping them to make better choices when released.

Guest musicians and speakers are invited in to tailor-make each course to individual group needs. The courses focus on the healing power of music to aid those in recovery, to release trauma and encourage transformation.

Sound Therapy and Meditation with a professional therapist is also offered to prisoners, to help alleviate depression and reduce anxiety. The aim of the workshop is to create a space of trust, equality and non-judgement so that each person is given a voice and a second chance to rebuild previously complex lives.

As a student of Marianne Williamson’s ‘A Course in Miracles’, a philosophy based on love over fear, the workshops incorporate spiritual guidance, not based on doctrine or any one faith, but within a value system that encourages self responsibility, emotional awareness, peace and respect for ourselves and others.

Deborah has more than 20 years experience as a singer-songwriter and recording artist. She has an MA in Songwriting, an English Literature Postgraduate Diploma and a BA Hons Journalism Degree. She has also received a Level One Reike Healing Accreditation and Sound Therapy Level One. She works regularly with those suffering with dementia in care homes, and teaches music to children in a bush village in Uganda. Deborah is currently receiving advanced Music Therapy training from Arts Uplift programme for working with alzheimers patients.

HMP Drake Hall Women’s Prison, Staffordshire (April 2018)

‘Too Many Sorry’s’ written and recorded by HMP Featherstone Songwriting Group (Christmas 2018)

‘Out of Darkness Comes Light’

Album written and recorded live at Featherstone Prison – Work in Progress

Feedback from Participants:

“This course has been life changing. Songwriting is something I’ll do for the rest of my life now, even if its just for myself”
James Fuller, Featherstone

“Prison is a dark place, but with the right support we can make the change. Doing this course shows true strength.”
Fitz, Featherstone.

“Its the best thing I’ve done in prison. Its brought us all together and broken down barriers between prisoners and prison guards.”
Anthony, Featherstone

“This is a priceless story to tell for the rest of my days. It has brought out my creativity and unlocked my potential. I have found inner happiness. Deborah has an amazing ability to get everyone to start believing in themselves” 
Jason, Featherstone

“This course has built up my confidence. We discuss and try to address our offence through songs so its helps with rehabilitation.”
Fitz, Featherstone

“The holistic benefits of this course are priceless”
Darren Johnson, Governor, Featherstone

“True freedom is when you see things from the condition of your heart. This course has given me confidence.”
Marcus, Featherstone

“I use songwriting as a way to express my feelings. Not all convicts are the same and we are all still human. I made the wrong choice one day, but I do want to succeed in life and never return to prison. If I had one wish it would be for people to never experience pain and sadness.” 
Alex, Featherstone

“This course has helped my song arrangements. I totally enjoyed it, just wish it was for longer.”
Wayne, Featherstone

“This is the first time we’ve felt love and goodness since we’ve been inside”
Jo, Drake Hall

“ My confidence has hit the roof. I can write songs. I have written a song!”
Charmaine, Drake Hall

The workshop was such a great blessing to all!
Denise Rankin, Parish Minister & CEO Warring Women, Louisiana, USA

I wrote my first poem in your workshop. It was no accident you came to Baton Rouge!
Donald Goree, Prison Minister, Louisiana, USA