Monday, 6 April 2015

The Soundtrack to My (Prison) Life

Having blogged about the books that helped get me through my time in prison, I thought that I’d share some thoughts on the music that kept me going inside, especially when things were particularly grim. Some tracks are included in the list because they were played regularly when I was a con; others because they had a special meaning to me personally. I suppose that you could call this selection a soundtrack to my prison life.

CDs: prison listening
Music plays an important role in the lives of many prisoners as it can provide emotional comfort, mental escape from confinement and – when using earphones – create a much-needed refuge of personal space within what can be a very noisy communal living area, especially when there are two or even three adult men sharing a tiny concrete cell. Some lucky prisoners still have guitars, although new rules introduced in 2013 have made it much more difficult for inmates to purchase musical instruments.

Even those who don’t possess a radio or CD player can still listen in via the rented in-cell TV. Of course, iPods and other MP3 devices are banned by law from prisons, so other than CDs and old cassette tapes the choice of medium for playing music is very limited. There are also strict limits set on the number of CDs that any inmate can have in possession at any one time and loaning them to other cons, which of course does go on all the time, is a breach of prison rules and can get you put on report.

So here is my personal list.

1. Last Stand (Harry Chapin) 

Harry Chapin
Maybe an unconventional choice from the late US performer who is better known for his hit Cat’s in the Cradle, but Last Stand is the song I listened to every day in the run up to my trial and then every night after the hearing adjourned for the day. It’s a song about coping with defeat and disaster in pretty much all its forms.

Every criminal trial is a terrifying experience, so Chapin’s line that runs “you try to find some courage on your knees” struck me as being particularly apt. There is one verse above all other that I think sums up the sensation of standing in the dock as the jury delivers its verdict:

Take your look around the top,
For now you face the final drop.
You’ll go down fast and you won’t stop,
You found a very deep hole.

And thus it was. I didn’t get to hear Last Stand again for a couple of years. I never invested in a CD player and it didn’t get played on the radio while I was listening, but since I knew every verse by heart that song probably did more to help me find the courage to face the worst that the prison system could throw at me than almost anything else during my time in jail. When I finally went home for the first time on temporary release it was the first song I listened to on my iPod.

For many prisoners, being sent down – particularly for a long stretch – is the beginning of the end. I’ve seen so many casualties inside whose lives have effectively been ended by addictions, uncontrolled tempers, mental illnesses. For them, Chapin’s lyrics have a special relevance:

You watched as the last light
Went out there in your soul.

Walk around the wings of any prison and, believe me, you’ll find plenty of men – some of them barely out of their teens – from whom the last light in their lives really has gone out. It can be very frightening to witness.

2. Friday Mourning (Morrissey)

Morrissey: Friday Mourning
No list of songs relevant to the prison experience would be complete without at least one from Morrissey. Again, this is a number that meant a lot to me in the run up to the trial. I well remember pounding on a treadmill in a local gym trying to keep fit in the 14 months I was on bail listening to this and other similarly grim tracks from the master of dark and depressing lyrics.

In this case, his description of condemnation from family, friends, colleagues and wider society fits perfectly with the experience of many prisoners, whether innocent or guilty.

And when they haul me down the hall
And when they kick me down the stairs
I see the faces all lined up before me
Of teachers and of parents and bosses
Who all share a point of view
“You are a loser”
“You are a loser”.

Some prisoners have already spent most of their lives being kicked down the stairs (sometimes literally) and a majority have probably already been written off as “losers” long before they got through the prison gate. Self-esteem is not something that the experience of incarceration does much to build and when you have nothing to lose...

3. Payphone (Maroon 5)

Maroon 5: Payphone
Funnily enough, this song embedded itself into my prison experience as it topped the charts while I was inside. The main reason it became so relevant was not because of the accompanying music video in which Adam Levine transforms from a bored bank clerk via an armed robbery into a fugitive engaged in a dramatic police pursuit, but because so many cons used to sing or whistle the tune while standing in the long queues to use the wing payphones!

I’m at a payphone trying to call home
All of my change I spent on you.

Imagine 20 or so cons leaning against a long corridor wall all waiting to get their ten minutes on the payphones singing this chorus, more or less in tune, to the bemusement of the wing screws. Moments of humour like that aren’t common in prison, but they do occur and that was one of them.

4. I Shall be Released (The Band)
The Band: I Shall be Released

This is not just a song, it’s more a state of mind. I much prefer the 1968 release by The Band to Bob Dylan’s own solo version. This is one of the most famous prison-themed songs of all time and for me it has a timeless quality.

It deals with the psychology of loss and confinement, as well as addressing in the final verse the plight of the wrongly convicted who find themselves trapped unjustly within an uncomprehending system. For those people, the lines “So I remember every face, Of every man who put me here” are particularly poignant.

It is also, above all, a song that focuses on hope and the prospect of eventual release that is in the mind of just about every prisoner, even if the likelihood is remote. I spent many, many hours looking at the high walls surrounding Cat-B and Cat-C prisons while imagining how everyday life was going on just over the other side. Occasionally, from upper landings, you could glimpse the world over the walls and I know cons who could spend hours each day just looking between the bars of their cell windows dreaming about the day when they would be released. Some probably never will be.

5. Reflections of My Life (The Marmalade)
The Marmalade: Reflection of My Life

This is a song from the 1960s by the Scottish band The Marmalade about a longing for a return to the old familiar past and, above all, a deep desire to get back home, a feeling that is familiar to every prisoner and person held captive. For many inmates thoughts of home – even of a home that is long gone – sustains them across the years inside. They live on their memories of happier times and of the love of family:

All my sorrow, sad tomorrow
Take me back to my old home.

Of course, the reality for a great many prisoners is that there is nothing left on the other side of the wall. Families have split up and moved on or loved ones have died. There is no ‘old home’ to go back to, so they have to make do with fading memories. When the day of release finally arrives it can prove to be both a big shock, as well as a sad disappointment.

So what keeps prisoners going, especially when sentences stretch into decades? Sometimes it’s hope and for others it can be fear of the unknown:

The world is a bad place, a bad place
A terrible place to live, oh but I don’t wanna die.

Hope of any kind can keep people going no matter how terrible their situation – and this is true of many who are facing crisis outside of prisons – but once all hope is lost, that’s when the balance can tip and death can come to be seen as offering a welcome release. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the suicide rate is climbing once more in our prisons.

6. The Needle and the Damage Done (Neil Young)
Neil Young

This 1972 song is Neil Young’s reflections on the scourge of heroin addiction – a very relevant issue in our prisons where wings are awash with every kind of drug, legal and illegal. Many prisoners are serving sentences that are directly linked to crimes committed in order to obtain drugs and you can often see the way these substances have ravaged their bodies and minds. Youngsters in their 20s look like old men, frail and toothless as they totter down prison wings.

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s like a settin’ sun.

Although Young’s lyrics were inspired by his own experiences of seeing friends, band members and other musicians of his generation destroyed by heroin, they also mean something special to anyone who has witnessed this nightmare at close quarters. And that is just as relevant to those who are the victims of drug-related crime, often including family members or neighbours of the person who is addicted.

When I was in an open prison in the last year of my sentence I attended a charity concert given in the prison chapel and one of my fellow cons did a Neil Young set, accompanying himself on the guitar. Like the original it was a stripped-down performance, although in this case the lyrics were being sung by a man who was serving a life sentence for terrible crimes committed under the influence of drugs. As he sang those lyrics, I looked around the chapel and could see for myself the truth of Young’s words.

7. Part of Me (Katy Perry)
Katy Perry: Part of Me

This is another song that hit the top of the charts when I was inside in 2012. It was wildly popular with most cons – probably due to the irresistible combination of Ms Perry and a music video that showed her playing with guns. However, I chose to see something a bit more meaningful in her lyrics within a prison setting.

Prison is all about de-personalisation and imposed uniformity. The experience of incarceration tends to dehumanise everyone involved in it, both inmates and members of staff and it can be a real struggle to retain ‘normal’ standards of humanity. So when Katy Perry sings:

This is the part of me
That you’re never gonna ever take away from me.

this can have a relevance to prison life, especially since the music video that accompanies the track shows her reacting to a failed relationship by enlisting in the military, going through basic army training and then preparing for combat. Prison inmates are given numbers, uniforms and have much of their former identity stripped away. The key issue is to what extent you manage to retain your essential humanity – the part of you that no-one is ever going to take away.

8. The Mercy Seat (Johnny Cash)
Johnny Cash

I doubt that it would be possible to compile a list of prison songs without including Johnny Cash, even though the nearest he ever really got to being in the slammer himself was the odd overnight in police cells for minor drink or drugs offences. He did, however, perform concerts for inmates at both Folsom Prison and San Quentin in the late 1960s.

I actually think that Cash’s version of The Mercy Seat is better than Nick Cave’s, but that’s personal choice. The song tells the powerful story of a man awaiting execution in the electric chair and, at various points in the lyrics, it seems as if he is actually welcoming death as a relief from “all this twistin’ of the truth”. He also asserts repeatedly that he is not afraid to die and that he is innocent of the crime for which he has been condemned, although there is a twist in the final verse where the lyrics suggest that he has been lying – although whether about his innocence, or his fear of dying, or both is never made clear.

The symbolism is heavy with religious imagery, particularly that of the Israelite Ark of the Covenant – sometimes known as the ‘mercy seat’ – that was kept in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem. Throughout the song, the Ark, which had to power to kill those who touched it without authorisation, is compared to the electric chair which does the same to the condemned man.

Long before I went to prison I appreciated this song because, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I used to write regularly to a prisoner on Death Row in Florida for several years prior to his execution (by means of lethal injection, rather than the electric chair). I’ve always been deeply opposed to the death penalty, so this number by Cash means something very personal to me.

There is a lesser known song recorded by Johnny Cash called The Wall and this deals with the death of a prisoner who according to the official report tried to escape, but in reality committed suicide by approaching the prison wall deliberately in order to be shot by the guards in the watchtower. I was torn between this and The Mercy Seat, so I decided to include it here anyway.

9. Sit Down (James)
James: Sit Down

This 1989 song by the Manchester band James always reminds me of the large number of prisoners I met inside who live with mental health problems – which is one of the main themes of this chart hit. As an Insider (peer mentor) I spent a lot of my time in jail sitting with fellow cons who were in distress or crisis, particularly those who were in desperate need of mental health care, but who were often simply ignored or even punished for their erratic behaviour.

Sometimes they shared their problems with me because there were occasions when it seemed that no-one else had any time for them. This role became more than a prison job for me, perhaps it was more of a vocation I suppose. However, it was rarely easy to share someone else’s dark night of the soul.

I’ll sing myself to sleep
A song from the darkest hour
Secrets I can’t keep
Inside of the day.

Some of the things that I was told by other inmates have had an enduring impact on me. Terrible stories of human depravity, often of crimes committed against them when they were young kids, including rape and other forms of abuse. Many had lived with these traumas for most of their lives and some weren’t coping very well or had used alcohol or drugs to self-medicate. Others were consumed with hatred and anger that could erupt into violence without warning, making them dangerous to themselves and those around them.

Those who feel the breath of sadness
Sit down next to me
Those who find they’re touched by madness
Sit down next to me
Those who find themselves ridiculous
Sit down next to me
Love, in fear, in hate, in tears.

And when listening to these adult men, some of whom remained small, frightened children inside, I experienced all of these emotions and more. It was both a privilege and a burden. I doubt that my life will ever be the same again.

10. Anthem (Leonard Cohen)
Leonard Cohen: Anthem

I’ve always enjoyed Leonard Cohen’s music, but I think that the particular song that came to mean a great deal to me while I was in prison was Anthem. It was also a great favourite of an old friend of mine who died very suddenly and unexpectedly last week. He was a great help and a source of comfort to me throughout my time inside and I’ll always associate this song with him.

The lyrics are all about the losses, griefs and betrayals of human life, yet the song also speaks of the possibility of redemption even in broken lives:

There is a crack, a crack in everything 
That’s how the light gets in. 

I’ve seen for myself how some very damaged and broken people in prison can still be capable of great acts of kindness and selflessness. It’s often their presence on a prison wing that can make the difference between life and self-inflicted death or injury among those around them.

Those readers who know me personally will also understand why these lyrics by Cohen are very relevant to me:

I can’t run no more 
with that lawless crowd 
while the killers in high places 
say their prayers out loud. 
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up 
a thundercloud 
and they’re going to hear from me. 

Sometimes you just have to do what is morally right even when the legal consequences can be devastating. Perhaps this blog is a small part of what ‘they’ are going to hear from me.


  1. I've always loved music - songs remind us of a particular time or event in our lives.

    For me there's just one song which relates to my time in prison. It's not a genre or artist I'm particularly fond of but it really hit home for me. It was in the charts whilst I was inside and frequently played on the Viva channel available on the in-cell TV.

    It's "No Regrets" by Dappy.

    It's particularly poignant for just a couple of lines......

    "So when you feel like there's no more and nothing left but the life you've broken
    No regrets, no turning back
    Pick up yourself and tell them I'm just being me"

    And also....

    "Cause when I look in the mirror
    I don't even recognise myself
    Got the heart of a winner
    But looking back at me is someone else"

    Being banged up in a cell for hours on end these words really did have a significant impact on me. Thank you for your post Alex, I'd almost forgotten how music helped me through my relatively short sentence.

    1. Thanks for sharing your own experience of a song that became important to you in prison. As you rightly point out, the music channel Viva is available on most rented in-cell TV sets and that is often how inmates keep up with the current top 40. I know that most of my pad-mates and I tuned in to Viva during weekends and weekday lunchtime bang up.

      Specific songs heard inside can also take on special meaning when - as in the example you quote above - the lyrics seem to sum up some aspect of imprisonment or your own emotional reaction to the situation. Music can provide comfort as well as entertainment and being prisoners we have certainly had plenty of enforced leisure to reflect on what has moved us to the extent that it has become part of the background soundtrack of our prison experiences.

  2. Off topic but an interesting article on rehabilitation in contrast to the Guardian piece on Sodexo bringing in kiosks which you commented on: Just goes to show that TR is very unlikely to work because it won't be focused on such initiatives as the one in Glasgow. As both the cop in the piece and Lord Ramsbotham said: if prison worked there would be no one in jail which is proof it doesn't.

    1. Thanks for your comments. In case any blog readers haven't seen my contribution in the comments section here are the relevant points:

      I think that the Probation Service needs to take a long, hard look at itself. A wider public debate about probation and supervision of offenders and ex-offenders is also needed.

      The origins of the modern Probation Service (established in 1907) lie in well-intentioned outreach work by private charities anxious to break the cycle of reoffending. The Probation of Offenders Act (1907) mandated the newly appointed probation officers to 'advise, assist and befriend' those under their supervision. That was, for generations, the role most probation staff fulfilled and, by and large, they did it well.

      However, in recent years it can be seen that the role of the probation officer has changed significantly. Gone are the days of 'advise, assist and befriend' to be replaced in many cases with a much more hostile approach which focuses primarily on 'management of risk', public protection and the endless filling in of complex boxes within the cumbersome and costly Offender Assessment System (OASys). As a result, the institutional culture of probation staff has become much more risk adverse, with a greater willingness to recommend recall to custody first and ask questions afterwards.

      I know personally a significant number of ex-prisoners who have been released and have found their period on probation (usually half the entire sentence) to be more stressful than the original period in custody. There is also a popular myth that in order to get recalled to prison while on licence there needs to be a fresh offence - which is often far from the truth. A very frequent reason for requesting a recall of an ex-prisoner on licence is the perception that risk factors have risen - an entirely subjective analysis.

      Some individual probation officers seem to be more 'trigger-happy' than others while, to be fair, some are far closer to the original vision of genuinely trying to support and assist former prisoners under their supervision. In that respect, a period on licence can turn into a personality lottery. If you are lucky enough to be assigned to one of the best in the profession, the chance of recall can be extremely slim (assuming that no further offences are committed), but not everyone is so lucky.

      What is particularly worrying about Chris Grayling's so-called Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) agenda is that our crisis-hit prisons are now delivering virtually nothing meaningful when it comes to rehabilitation. Short of staff and resources, while being vastly overcrowded, many prisons seem to have just given up on this objective, despite it being a key part of the Prison Service's own mission statement. Probation officers, and their equivalents in the newly privatised Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) will be left to pick up the pieces.

      Moreover, by introducing a 12-month probation period for all those released from a custodial sentence (including people who have served a few days or weeks), the potential pool of ex-prisoners liable to recall will inevitably rocket, thus placing an even greater burden on the prison system. As with so many ideologically-motivated schemes, the actual numbers recalled will far exceed the initial projections. Against the background of this catastrophic slide into chaos across the prisons and probation sectors, a few touch pad machines will probably be the least of our worries.

  3. When do prisoner ids change? Is it annually, biannually, every April or January?

    1. Thanks for your question. In my experience prisoner IDs are only changed when an inmate moves to a new prison (or if an ID card gets lost or broken beyond repair - for which there is usually a charge of about £2).

      According to the rules, ID card photos are supposed to be updated if there has been a significant change in appearance - ie a beard grown or shaved off or very long hair cut short - however, in practice this is very rarely done. I've also known cons who have lost their cards and then either gone without for months or who just borrow a mate's card to use the gym or collect canteen orders!

      The only times I really used my own card, which is supposed to be worn round the neck on a lanyard or bootlace when out of cell, was when I was in an open prison and going out of the gate for release on temporary licence (ROTL). Then I had to hand my card into the wing office, along with my room key, in exchange for my licence book (which also has a photo on it).

    2. I meant the actual letters and numbers, the ni number changes every year...if a convict is sent to jail in 2015 and given an id number of XY1234Z, what will be another convicts id number be in 2016?

    3. Ah, I understand now. I honestly have no idea how those ID numbers are assigned. Of course, now people keep the same number for life so if they are recalled or sentenced on a future occasion their number should stay the same, regardless of when they serve it. Perhaps another reader knows the answer to your original question!

  4. didn't realize cash had rerecorded the mercy seat! i have always had a soft spot for cave's old testament preacher delivery though. but i'm sure he must be flattered cash recorded this anyway.


    1. Thanks for your comments, Martina. I actually prefer Cash's version of The Mercy Seat (and I also prefer his version of Hurt to the original by Nine Inch Nails). I recently came across Girl from the North Country sung by Cash and Bob Dylan (who wrote it)... very moving.

  5. Hubby isn't really marking his time with music as he only has limited radio access where he is, but I seem to be. Most recent tune for our time is The Gaslight Anthem's "Handwritten".

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think that music can be a very valuable coping mechanism. I certainly found it to be during my own time inside.

  6. Your number one, Harry Chapin's Last Stand --- just want to let you know I really value coming across that (I wouldn't have, without your blog).
    Thank you.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I'm glad to read that you liked the song... it kept me going when things got really tough!

    2. Me again (from 14th May) ---don't went to be intrusive, but would you mind if I asked where/how you came across that recording? I'm UK-based, in my sixties: Harry Chapin had completely escaped me.

      Thank you, Alex. All the best.

  7. Listening to music can really be a great way to learn, relax and pass the time by. Music are life lessons written in words and accompanied by sweet and sometimes loud melodies. It is how some people express emotions and there are time when we can really relate to every lyrics of the song. For people who are in jail, it would be nice for the family to provide them with some cds or mp3 music and regularly communicate with them through cheap jail call services to keep them hoping that someday they will see and be with their families again. Be the music of their life and your voice is the best type of music they want to hear.

  8. I was in for two years. My girlfriend would send me a mix cd every month. She would use the first letters of band names to send me a message. Like every one had "love" in it and I swore she would run out of "v" bands, but she never did. Velvet underground, Verve Pipe, Veruca Salt. You are absolutely right music can help get you through. Nice list man!

    Eliseo Weinstein @ JR's Bail Bonds