Emily Vermont is co-founder of the incredible charity, Finding Rhythms, which uses music to help rehabilitate prisoners and teach them transferable skills, all while recording a professionally produced album! She tells us how volunteering inspired her and how rewarding it is to be able to create that little bit of freedom for the prisoners.
I have always wanted to work in prisons…
When I was young, my mum started volunteering in a young offenders’ institution where she was mentoring 14 to 16 year old boys who had done very serious crimes. Hearing how much they were flourishing just with one person one hour per week made me realise that that was the job I wanted to do.
I was brought up in a family where from a young age we were sent out to volunteer. My mother said it was character building to work with disadvantaged people. From that I realised that charitable work isn’t entirely altruistic. You get a lot out of it yourself. So I’m quite unapologetic – I do it because I get so much reward. I get letters from people in prison thanking me for what we have done.
Growing up I was hanging out with people who were a bit on the edge – my boyfriend went to prison and that also made me realise that prison is real and is part of life for a lot of people. His uncle had gone to prison. When it’s happening in your family it’s like an occupational hazard sometimes. When you realise how ridiculously futile our approach is – you want to do something about that.
Finding my rhythm
When I graduated, I applied for jobs working for charities working in prisons. It was very difficult – not least because I had broken my jaw! So I got a job as a chef. I heard about The Clink which is a restaurant run by a Michelin starred chef inside a prison so on my one day off per week I would volunteer there. That was my first experience of working inside a prison. After 3 months of working 80 hour weeks, I was absolutely burnt out so I went to work at Bird’s Eye View Film Festival to do something purely creative.
My direct boss at Bird’s Eye View was the wife of the musician, Robin Harris, that I started Finding Rhythms with. Robin had done some work in prisons and was interested in doing more. He didn’t have any time but he had this method of running these workshops that really produced results. He had produced an album in a prison in 2007 and it just blew me away. The talent of the prisoners and the quality of the production – I wanted to be part of it.
I was introduced to Robin in Spring 2012. Finding Rhythms became a charity in May 2013 and I went full time in September 2013 which is when it really started taking off!
The toughest period of working with Finding Rhythms was definitely the first year where I had to have so much self-belief to keep going. I was interning at Birds Eye View and Finding Rhythms was eating up all my savings – but this was my life’s dream!
Each project produces an album
Each project is 6 to 12 weeks long and produces one professionally produced album entirely authored by the prisoners. For each session we have one workshop leader, one guest musician and one sound engineer working with a group of about 10 prisoners.
From the word go – everything is being recorded using a loop programme. The prisoners start improvising and we record those bits and layer them up. Within an hour you can have a whole track of incredibly rich analogue sounds built up. Then we will do the rap and singing over that.
In the space of 36 hours, we could record 12 full tracks and from that we select 10 tracks to go on the album.
The guest musician is usually a different one each week so we can bring in all different types of skills and people. The musicians are all leading musicians in their field. We have had Amy Winehouse’s drummer, the saxophonist from Mercury nominated band Polar Bear and Paloma Faith’s guitarist.
The professional musicians haven’t always worked in an educational environment so they have high expectations of our prisoners. Because it’s that professional environment, we can also help the prisoners work towards the BTEC certificate ‘Supporting Employability and Personal Effectiveness’ – these are skills that are transferrable to any job.
Because we are all external, we don’t feel like prison staff to the prisoners – they really value that. We allow them to express what they want to express and they feel an element of freedom from that.
Not a traditional approach
There is a lot of rhetoric from the government about wanting prisoners to be at an activity and have working days. Chris Grayling made huge cuts to prison staff and services such as the arts were the first to go. That way of thinking that the arts aren’t essential is not helpful at all. It is misunderstanding the population. So many of the prisoners are not ready to go off and do a maths class or reading class. They are often very traumatised and only things like the arts that don’t take traditional approaches will make that initial engagement with the prisoners.
Ours is a music project, but there is also so much else going on and so many other skills they are learning without needing to go to an employability skills class or presentation class – it just happens naturally.
Between 70 and 80 prisoners have now done the programme across 5 different prisons. We will do another 2 more projects this year which will reach another 20 people. Next year we’re planning to run the programme for 100 more prisoners.
Male vs female prisons
To date, we have only worked in male prisons but our next project is going to be in a women’s prison. In male prisons, people’s problems often come out in bravado and aggression, but in women’s prisons you have a chronic issue with internalising problems, self-harm and depression. It will be a very different environment to work in.
At the moment we track the immediate effect of the programme when the prisoners complete the project. We have also spoken to a scientific college who would like to partner on a trial measuring cortisol levels through saliva swabs. We can show cortisol levels before, during and after the course and hopefully show that our courses are helping these people become calmer, less aggressive and happier people.
There are a lot of immediate issues inside prisons like violence towards staff, between prisoners, suicides. So hopefully we can show that a programme like ours helps with the situations inside prisons too.
We have just recruited our first operations assistant who is in fact an ex-prisoner!
It would be our dream in 5 years’ time to have a physical hub in London – somewhere with a studio of our own. A place that prisoners can create, hang out and have a positive network to be part of when they come out. And of course, we would love to be nationwide!