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.

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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

Birds.

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.

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