TV Choir star Gareth Malone takes on his toughest challenge yet, HM Prison Aylesbury

Gareth Malone has featured on our televisions screens for nearly 14 years now, but last week aired one of his toughest assignments to date: HM Prison Aylesbury
Gareth MaloneGareth Malone
Gareth Malone

He was tasked with creating a choir out of the prisoners by Laura Sapwell, the incumbent governor of the prison.

Aylesbury Youth Offenders Institute houses some of the most violent juvenile offenders in the UK.

And the prison is currently in a state of dissaray, having been put into special measures in March last year.

The concert held at HMYOI Aylesbury as seen from aboveThe concert held at HMYOI Aylesbury as seen from above
The concert held at HMYOI Aylesbury as seen from above

Half the prisoners were moved out, and three wings were shut down.

A report from the Howard League for Penal Reform published in September described a terrifying place, wrought with violence, staff assaulted daily and prisoner on prisoner assaults more than doubling from the previous year.

Self harm rates in the prison had gone through the roof, and inspectors raised “significant concerns for the mental and physical well-being” of prisoners in the segregation unit.

The 400 inmates, aged between 18 and 21, are doing time for various offences, including drug crimes, robbery, GBH, manslaughter and murder. About a sixth are serving life sentences. Forty per cent are “dealing with some form of mental health problem”.

The prisoners who performedThe prisoners who performed
The prisoners who performed

Mr Malone admitted that taking on Aylesbury prison would have been one of his most difficult challenges yet, and so it proved.

It is hard to imagine a person cutting a more out of place figure than Gareth Malone wandering around amongst the inmates.

Laura Sapwell the Governor, said she was looking to extend the prisoners educational programmes and try something new when she approached Malone for this series.

She said: "Aylesbury has been in a difficult place over the last few years. Here at Aylesbury we hold some of the most challenging and complex young men.

"The whole point of the prison system is to try and change their minds and help them to be rehabilitated so that when they leave they're less likely to commit further crimes."

And so, Gareth took on the challenge to create the choir in just NINE weeks.

Trying to find out who would be interested in joining the choir, there is a reluctance of any of the prisoner's to join, with an inmate responding: "That's not how the mandems tango" within the first half an hour of the program.

The dream of a choir evaporates very quickly, so malone adapts his aims to find prisoners with an interest in music.

Gareth Malone's efforts to recruit prisoners are admirable, and if he was daunted by the prospect of working with some of the most violent offenders in the UK he showed absolutely no signs of it.

After scouring 200 prisoners, he finds 20 who are willing to take part in the choir - however none of them sing.

The prisoners are interested in drill and rapping, and it's clear some of them have a talent in that genre.

However its a far cry from what Laura Sapwell or Gareth Malone no doubt had in mind.

Malone laments the messages of drill, which glorify guns, violence and revenge when he watches a youtube clip of the genre suggested by an inmate.

When he is watching a masked group on Youtube his dismay is self evident: “If we’re going to make any music, it has to be about the future, about regret, redemption. This is so bleak.”

He bemoans the inmates’ obsession as he searches for just one original voice. “Drill in the morning, drill in the evening, drill, drill, drill.”

Malone is determined to break the cycle of violence.

After realising this, he starts to work in small groups or individually with prisoners, focusing on songwriting, which the prisoners take to with ease and showcase some impressive work.

An inmate named Dwayne, doing six years for robbery, is particularly talented. “He’s just a bit more open-minded,” said Malone. “He sang. We made music.”

Dwayne admits that working with him made him feel uplifted, and feels grateful for someone taking time to work with them, perhaps indicating with a bit of work these people can get back on track through music.

But unfortunately just as things seems to be moving in the right direction with Dwayne, they fall apart just as fast.

A fight breaks out in the prisoners hall, Dwayne gets knocked unconscious and is carried out in an ambulance to accident and emergency.

Fights break out at Aylesbury about 20 times a month, usually between prisoners from rival London based gangs.

This forms the biggest part of the challenge that Malone faces, as he is locked away while prison staff deal to the disturbances.

He described the prison as one of "the most volatile environment I've ever been in"

The real challenge for Gareth Malone is organising the logistics in such a complex establishment in which the security arrangements are watertight, where things can kick off at the drop of a hat, and where rival gang members cannot be mixed.

The prisoners show a willingness to reflect on their life of crime, and show regret in the hurt of family members, in deep and meaningful lyrics but the notion of forming a 'choir' is thrown out of the window half an hour into the first episode.

It marks no small achievement of Gareth Malone to get some of the most violent offenders in the UK to reflect on their lives, and open up to him about the violence and trauma these people have faced so early in their lives.

It is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the documentary, exploring the mindset of offenders, why they offended and the regret they feel for their actions.

The programme also escapes from the prison, interviewing family members about their children, helping to contextualise the acts their children have committed.

It is difficult not to be moved by the stories as the viewer is asked what they would do in the same situation, from apparently normal upbringings that have witnessed acts of incredible violence.

Malone's hard work and perseverance in the prison do not prove fruitless, as he does find a group of men who are willing perform music, even if not in the iteration he and the governor had in mind.

One of these is a young man called Lewis, who is in jail for armed robbery.

Lewis is faced with a complex string of mental health challenges including bipolar disorder.

Lewis shares his experiences about living with bipolar disorder, and how it's affected him.

He is however bullied by other inmates for getting involved, and his cold feet become self evident after the abuse he receives.

This is symptomatic of the difficulties Malone faces in recruiting people to sing and take part in the project.

Currently, the majority of prisoners struggle with some form of mental health issue with self harm figures rising alarmingly over recent years.

The main frustration through the two episodes is trying to get the prisoners to work together, so they focus on working individually.

Eventually he turns to the prison staff, in order to recruit some numbers.

50 of the 250 staff turn up to join a choir to accompany the prisoners who want to get involved, and finally he begins to make some headway.

Malone in the end pulls together a song from a prisoner called Usher, a former Drill artist who is clearly a talented individual, aided and abetted by his new 50 strong prison choir staff.

Usher is currently serving a life sentence for murder.

Usher says his music does not condone violence, but portrays the lifestyles of many who end up locked up in prison.

Eventually four offenders are persuaded to get involved in the project, and each of them perform to an audience in the main prison made up of prisoners families and other interested groups.

The songs are made up of the life stories of the prisoners, transcribed into song with themes of regret, longing for freedom and sadness for the grief they have inflicted on their families.

Malone encourages each young man to tell their stories, outside the confines of the 'drill genre' and outside themes of vengeance and retribution.

It is a rewarding watch, and very moving - and it's hard not to come out with admiration for the work of Malone, the prison staff and prisoners who in the face of intense criticism produce a fine performance in-front of visitors at the prison.

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