Music in Prisons, Trauma and the Journey to Rehabilitation

5 Minute Read
Written by Mike Bailey

Mike Bailey of Red Tangent Records reflects on the role of music in recovery and rehabilitation for offenders.

The purpose and effectiveness of the UK prison system, as well as the discussion around how fit for such a purpose it might be, could fill many a book – so we shall stay away from that as much as possible.

System wide interventions aimed at rehabilitation have been espoused but on the ground are practically non-existent. Many of the men, women and children that fill our prison system have undergone serious trauma, a fact which many in the professional field are beginning to accept, highlight and, as is the case with Steve Chalke and the Oasis Restore ‘secure school’, address.


Yet, we are still a long way from redressing the balance, focussing on prevention rather than punishment and fully utilising tools to make rehabilitation valid and real. So what are the options? And why should something as seemingly frivolous as music sessions for prisoners be taken seriously?

The realities of the prison environment are pretty grim; at times harsh and brutal and at others mind numbingly tedious. Often residents of the prison estate are left locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day with very little in the way of constructive activity. There are, however, some organisations that try to connect with those inhabiting our prisons and a good percentage of those are what’s known as ‘Music in Prisons’ organisations.

The Prison Music Collective (PMC), which aims to see music in every prison across England and Wales, identifies eleven organisations, mainly charities, that provide various ‘access to music’ pathways for prisoners. Changing Tunes is the largest charity of its kind in the UK working in 25 different prisons, secure units and alternative provisions (with it’s Young Voices program) across the South West, up to the Midlands and as far east as London, as well as in the community with those who wish to continue their journey. Changing Tunes is also the parent charity of Red Tangent Records, a lived-experience led record label founded in 2021 through The National Lottery Community Fund, releasing music made by former prisoners.

Let me give you some figures to get us started. In the UK, 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months. The reoffending rate for former prisoners working with Changing Tunes currently stands at 7% over the last 9 years. The Changing Tunes website has a glorious amount of data and information about their work but for the sake of brevity I’ll paraphrase heavily, “Changing Tunes works in a trauma-informed way using music and mentoring to increase desistance from crime.” David Jones, CEO of Changing Tunes, would be able to tell you about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and the ‘Theory of Change’ developed alongside Prof. Shadd Maruna that underpins their work, but, ultimately I believe that the effectiveness of organisations like Changing Tunes, Irene Taylor Trust and others, lies in a balance between their policies, the personalities and talent that make up their staff and their ability to harness the power of music.

“In the UK, 75% of ex-inmates reoffend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months. The reoffending rate for former prisoners working with Changing Tunes currently stands at 7% over the last 9 years.”


Music is a powerful tool for self-expression and self-exploration, my own journey through the prison system was made easier to bear, and much more useful in terms of self-reflection, by having access to a guitar, via Changing Tunes, that enabled me to write deeply personal songs that explored the reasons I went to prison, how I felt about it; how i felt about myself, as well as my hopes for the future. Having a constructive outlet for those emotions was invaluable – and definitely not something provided by the prison service in general. The daily goal of learning a new chord, strumming pattern or song also helped me structure my days and enabled me to feel like I was making progress despite the lack of stimulus around me.

In general the power of music cannot be underestimated: Music therapy can help decrease pain, anxiety, fatigue and depression – all of which are familiar aspects of prison life. Music may also help those with a substance abuse disorder, which can be an issue for a large proportion of the prison population. Research has shown that music can increase motivation and self-esteem, reduce muscle tension, decrease anxiety, improve self-awareness and strengthen coping skills. In fact the Changing Tunes model is built around person-specific outcomes: Hope; determination and personal agency – goal setting and personal achievement; Self-esteem and confidence; positive identity; social inclusion; resilience and improved mental health – all of which are bolstered by music. The lack of such positive qualities in a person’s life can often make the traps of crime and social exclusion easy to fall into. And, shockingly, there is very little built into the prison system itself in an attempt to build or develop these qualities.

Red Tangent Records primary goal is to help talented musicians, who happen to be former prisoners, record and release music to develop a foothold in an increasingly competitive market. We espouse the views held by organisations such as Changing Tunes and thusly help to direct our artists’s focus – we encourage desistance from crime, but more than that there is an opportunity for the wider public to connect with music that happens to be made by an ex-prisoner, and to question whether or not that is even a factor? We want to encourage a conversation around not writing people off simply because they have been to prison and to turn attention to actually reducing the numbers of people in prison, reducing reoffending and, hopefully, reducing crime by addressing the causes of crime. I’ll leave you with some final words from some of the artists on our roster.

“Whilst in prison I was fortunate enough to gain access to a guitar, I had always played but had stopped performing, it was more of a hobby at that point. I practised day and night and focussed on songwriting. Music allowed me to express how I was feeling – air all the built up thoughts, it helped me immensely – so much so that I feel without that distraction and creative output I may not even be here today. I was encouraged to write more as people were enjoying my songs – now free I find myself with a record deal in the final stages of recording my debut album, weird how things turn out. Everything happens for a reason and in my case ‘Everything has led to this’ I truly believe that.” – Ryan Kershaw

“Writing music in prison helped me to release my thoughts and emotions in a positive way instead of holding everything in and exploding when I felt like I had no one to talk to. For me music became therapy and gave me a chance to express myself.” – NOBLE1BOF

“Whilst away the Changing Tunes sessions I was part of helped inspire me in a situation where I was at my very lowest. It helped me recognise my potential as both an artist and a musician. The opportunity to put together shows, write material and meet great, extremely talented, people has been an enormous benefit and has helped me to turn things around in a profound way”. – Abe Gladstone – WAK Therapists