THE GREAT ESCAPE
After taking it to the streets with his first choir project, the man behind Choir of Hard Knocks is going behind bars. Guy Davis tuned up with Jonathon Welch.
SUMMARY Jonathon Welch has breached the walls of a minimum-security women’s prison to begin a new choir in the hope of providing some joy, and to give the inmates a true shot at freedom when they are released. Jonathon Welch is a true believer in the power of music to change people’s lives for the better. He has demonstrated it before with the inspiring ABC-TV series Choir of Hard Knocks, which helped reshape the lives of a group of underprivileged and disadvantaged people doing it tough, and now he’s hoping to do it again with the new four-part program Jail
Going behind bars at Tarrengower Prison, a minimum-security women’s prison in regional Victoria, Welch aims to boost the self-esteem of a group of female inmates by the establishment of a choir, hopefully improving their prospects for rehabilitation and lowering their likelihood of returning to a life of crime.
Welch: “ What I really hope is that people see that these women can be helped to make a positive contribution when they’re released.”
It’s a project that actually predates Choir of Hard Knocks in some ways, according to Welch.
“ Prior to Choir of Hard Knocks, I was actually having conversations with Corrections Victoria about taking one of the choirs I worked with into a women’s prison to sing for them,” he said.
“ But I got a little bit busy when Choir of Hard Knocks started … which is a bit of an understatement, really!”
“ No one expected it to take off the way it did, least of all me. But when Corrections Victoria saw the documentary and saw the effect it had, I was invited to discuss the idea of running a similar choir program in women’s prisons.”
The philosophy of “ Competence building confi dence” underpins Welch’s efforts, with the choirmaster believing that his initiatives off er what is known as pro-social modelling. Quite simply, being in a choir builds not only musical skills but social skills.
“ A lot of women released from prison will return within two years, which is pretty staggering,” he said.
“ So what we’re looking to do is find ways to help these women look at their off ending behaviour and perhaps move in different circles in their community rather than simply return to the lives they came from.
“ The skills provided by choir programs enable you to move diff erently in your community and mix with people you wouldn’t ordinarily mix with. It gives you social access and social abilities to mix with people.”
Still, in a prison it can be diffi cult to develop such a skill-set.
“ The women are told from the time they go in [ the prison] that the other inmates are not their friends and that they shouldn’t disclose anything personal about themselves.
“ So prison is kind of the antithesis of a supportive community, and I knew the women were struggling expressing themselves freely and feeling any sense of commonality with one another.”
According to Welch, though, they shared more than they realised, something that became evident when they undertook a songwriting exercise.
“ I rolled out an 8m length of paper and got the women to write down important events in their lives, good and bad, in a timeline. Looking at it, you could see this really common thread. Even if their crimes were different, there were very similar as human beings.”
Welch is proud of his Jail Birds project, and he hopes it prompts as much discussion among viewers as Choir of Hard Knocks did.
“ I have a lot of faith in the ability of music to help build confi dence and self-esteem in such a way that people can see other possibilities in their lives,” he said.
“ What I really hope is that people see that these women can be helped to make a positive contribution when they’re released.”
In harmony: Choral conductor Jonathon Welch is bringing the magic of music to
prison inmates at Tarrengower Prison.