Sara’s Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travel fellowship blog part 2

In February we were delighted to announce that our Artistic Director Sara Lee had been awarded a prestigious travel fellowship from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (WCMT). The travel fellowship was designed to allow people from all over the UK from a diverse range of backgrounds and interests to travel aboard to ‘gain fresh perspectives on their own field of interest and return with enhanced expertise, able to be more effective at work and in their contribution to the community.’

Sara started her travels in June, taking in the West Coast of the US – you can read her blog from that first leg here. Now she has set sail again for the East Coast. Along the way she will be writing blog posts for our facebook page (like our page to keep up to date!). We’re also collecting them up here.

16th September – Boston


After a day of acclimatising to 30 degree heat and catching up with lovely friends, my first meeting was at Boston University (BU) with the Faculty Co-ordinator and the Field Co-ordinator of the Prison Education Programme. The programme started over 40 years ago and currently runs at both MCI Norfolk (men) and MCI Framingham (women). In the ‘80s and early ‘90s, several colleges offered courses in prisons, however, when the PELL grants (for students with financial need) were withdrawn for prisoners in the mid ‘90s, many colleges withdrew their courses. BU is the only course that remains, and it funds the courses and the prisoners itself.

A small number of prisoners who pass a series of entrance exams and an interview are able to work towards a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies whilst inside. If they haven’t completed it by the end of their sentence, they can finish it at BU upon release. As part of the degree, prisoners study English, maths, social sciences, languages, communications and a range of other subjects. Music is one of the electives and is extremely popular. Around 6 – 10 people graduate each year and there are currently around 150 men/women in the programme. I was told there was little formal research into the effects on recidivism which seemed strange since the course was attached to a University and it had been going for over 40 years. However there is a raft of anecdotal evidence that people have gone on to work and not return to custody.

In addition to this, BU offers a scholarship programme for prison employees where selected staff attend BU and study for a degree or a Masters. All the available scholarships are snapped up immediately and there is a long waiting list. This opportunity has helped with what was quite a strong resistance from staff towards prisoners being afforded to opportunity to engage in study. The reason was familiar, ‘neither me nor my children can afford to do it, so why should prisoners have the opportunity?’ BU has found that running these parallel opportunities has helped bring the 2 sides closer.

17th September – Boston


“NOT ALLOWED to be worn by any visitor – bathing suits, spandex (with the exception of undergarments), muscle shirts.”

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to go to Norfolk prison to see the music elective in action, run by the extremely impressive Andre, Emily and Trey. We had to wait at the gate for over an hour as they couldn’t find a female officer to search the growing number of increasingly irritable women who were slowly gathering in the entrance hall. Eventually, and at a snail’s pace, the required female officer arrived and at a similar pace, donned a set of blue plastic gloves in preparation for the search.

15 minutes later we made it to the room where we were greeted by over 20 extremely excited and enthusiastic men. It turned out that only about 7 or 8 were new to the semester-long elective, the rest had completed it a number of times because; “I just love music.” This was the first of 13 sessions the men will attend, where they will learn about music through singing, discussing, reading and writing about it. They will have to keep a journal throughout and create a short performance at the end in order to pass the elective. It was clear that this was precious to them, as were the tutors.

I was asked to give a short talk on what we do and with whom, where and why, which was followed by far more questions than there were time for. Several of the men decided to forgo their break so they could get to the bottom of what the differences were between accents in the UK, why US hip hop now takes a lot of its influences from UK and how it was possible for anyone in the UK to like country music. I was told by one man that I was the first person from UK he’d ever spoken to and asked by the group if it would be possible to come and run a week-long project with them in the prison as, ‘it sounds like the best thing ever and hundreds of people would want to do it, especially us lot.’

19th September – Boston/New York


Before leaving Boston, I spent a few hours writing up all the recorded interviews so far to make sure I don’t get submerged under words, and putting the final touches to what is slowly becoming an increasingly exciting and crammed timetable of people and places I am due to visit in New York. The train left the relaxed calm of Boston late morning and arrived in the exciting madness of Friday afternoon rush hour in New York 4 hours later. I was reunited with my new BFF, Amtrak, with trains that are on time, have loads of space, offer free and continuous wifi for the WHOLE journey not just 15 minutes of consistently terrible reception before having to pay an extortionate fee for anything above that, interesting and interested fellow passengers and communicative and helpful staff. Bring on the next journey. 

The first event on my calendar is tomorrow evening; ‘The Rite of Spring Dance Party’ in Brooklyn. It is a charity event for Musicambia, an organisation that works in prisons across the state and further afield, the founder of which I will be meeting later on during my stay. “The piece will be performed by the Experiential Orchestra, comprised of 85 of New York City’s very hottest musicians in Fort Greene Brooklyn, with YOU the audience invited to dance, house-party style, to the entire live performance.” Sounds intriguing and suitably off the wall and I can’t wait. Following that will be a couple of days sightseeing before a visit to a women’s prison in upstate New York, several meetings with various staff and practitioners at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Centre, a 2 day trip to meet prison and restorative justice people in Philadelphia then back to New York to meet some more musicians who work both in prisons, probation and other community settings.

20th September – New York

Inside Out 7_Lizzie Coombes

Sara Lee, photographed by Lizzie Coombes

“Ma’am, you have a wonderful accent. Are you from London?”

“I am. Do you know London?”

“Yes, ma’am, I was born in Brixton. Do you know Brixton?”

“Yes, I do.”

This brief conversation got me 2 extra hoagies so I was rather pleased.

Anyway, this evening’s Rite of Spring rave was something to behold (see a video on our Facebook page here). It was extraordinary in the sense I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. There were already over 100 people there when I arrived, no doubt lured by the ‘$1 dollar off each drink bought before 8pm.’ Even after 8pm people kept rolling in until there must have been over 300 people ready and waiting. The introductions were brief, to the point, and explained why we were all there and what was expected from us. Silence fell when a recording of the Star Spangled Banner was played over the PA, a violin solo performed by one of the prison students in Sing Sing. That was followed by a short orchestral piece which was written by another prisoner. The orchestra and the crowd were separated by the classical equivalent of a mosh pit (a 3 foot space cordoned off by a posh red rope and gold stands) and as soon as the opening melody of Rite of Spring began, people started gliding round the room, holding glowsticks, completely oblivious to the few gathered at the back clutching their wine, who may have wondered what on earth they had stumbled in on.

It continued as it began, at least two thirds of the crowd getting really into it, rolling around on the floor, crowd surfing and dancing with whoever was close by. At the end, the raffle prize was revealed, which was the opportunity for the 2 winners to sit in the orchestra, in front of the conductor as they repeated the final section of the piece. This was followed by an offer to all the audience, inviting them all to find a space within the orchestra as the final piece was played. There were people sitting at the feet of cellists, standing next to timpanists and sharing violinists’ chairs with about 50 people flat out on the floor.

And if that wasn’t enough, the evening ended in a completely random way on the subway home, when a busker, playing a melodica, serenaded the carriage with ‘Down at the Old Bull and Bush.’ Absolutely true.

21st September – New York


I spent today at 2 quite different places in the city, the 9/11 Memorial Museum and Central Park. The museum was fascinating, highly disturbing and extremely moving. A series of films, news footage and photos accompanied a timeline of the key events that occurred over the morning of September 11th 2001. You could listen to recordings of the cabin crew on the aircraft explaining to ATC about the hijack, messages to loved ones from passengers who realised the extent of what was happening and from friends and family, trying in vain to contact people they knew were at work in the north and south towers. As you followed the timeline, it became clear just how quickly it all happened and what a world-changing event it was. One of the films focused on bin Laden and Al-Qaeda and the history of events which led to the tragedy. It was truly awful.

In complete contrast, Central Park provided space and sunshine, ice-cream and impromptu conversations. As I walked round the park, I learned from an elderly man that the Pope is visiting New York this coming week and there is a massive buzz about it. They say we Brits are always on about the weather but it would appear we are not the only ones; “Pope Francis’ US Visit Forecast: Weather Unlikely to Interfere with Schedule.” was one of the headlines today. About 100,000 people are predicted to be at the procession in Central Park on Friday. The Pope is also visiting Philadelphia, which explains why the hotel prices were so astronomic when I booked.

It’s back to ‘work’ tomorrow with a meeting and also an event in upstate New York; “an evening of performance and conversation exploring the transformative power of story in the lives of men incarcerated at Sing Sing prison and how sharing personal narratives can bring people together inside the walls and out.” This is the first of 2 events, the second takes place at Carnegie Hall this coming Friday and will focus on, “how music plays an important role in the lives of the men at Sing Sing, and how music can bring together those inside and out.”

22nd September 2015 – New York


The film/discussion event last evening was extremely interesting. We watched a film made at Sing Sing prison, which, amongst many other things, showed the immense benefits education has for people inside. There was a panel discussion which followed, comprising the Superintendent of Sing Sing, the partner of a prisoner seen in the film, the founder of Rehabilitation through the Arts (whom I am meeting later today), an attorney and the executive director of Hudson Link.

What struck me whilst watching and listening was the sense of positivity amongst everyone and the real desire to do what they could to support change. It was absolutely clear that people were working together, building partnerships which were motivated by the desire to make things better rather than to make money. I am absolutely sure that the same frustrations/difficulties we experience in UK play their part too, but listening to the discussion last night, you were unaware of any of them.

The Superintendent summed it up when he said, “I have to say, the new ‘cool’ in my prison is education. I’m seeing the people and the place transform. The new role models in my prison are those men doing education. The young people look up to those who are studying and want to do it too.” It left me wondering why the same emphasis on real, useful learning is not the same in UK. I understand that employment is crucial but good quality and varied learning is what will help this happen.

Today’s photos were the result of my friend Sean arriving at his hotel only to be told they needed to move him somewhere else. I asked if the Pope was involved and was told, “no ma’am, the Pope is only a very small part of what is going on this week.” The drinks were a way to say sorry for having to move him to a 5 star suite in a hotel a few blocks away. “Please accept our humble apologies sir, and here’s a voucher for your friend too, please have a drink up to the value of $20 on us.”

24th September – New York


I spent a good deal of yesterday with Katherine, the wonderful ED of Rehabilitation though the Arts. Based at 5 prisons across the state, RTA delivers a wide range of arts work to prisoners and has done for around 20 years. Katherine had arranged for me to go and take part in a session at Bedford Hills, a maximum security women’s prison about an hour north of NYC.

After cracking up listening to them try and imitate my accent, (‘would you like a nice cup of tea Saaaara?’), tell them which of the Royal family I had met (?!) and try and remember exactly where I was when Prince George was born, I had the opportunity to speak to the group and the tutors about the work I do in England from which came an interesting question. I was told that there were all manner of orchestral instruments locked in cupboards gathering dust. Several of the women really wanted the opportunity to learn how to play but there was no-one to teach them.

It was a familiar story, cupboards full of brand new equipment, much of it still packaged up, bought at the end of a financial year with no real thought as to what to do with it. It seems as though the equipment at Bedford Hills had been used before though, just not for several decades. The task I was set was to see if I could find someone to unlock the cupboards and start teaching the instruments.

One of the other women pointed out that I actually lived thousands of miles away and maybe it’d be tricky but the woman who asked the question was not deterred by that, saying, “I’m sure you might at least know who to talk to so I’m going to thank you now for trying to help us.” Luckily, I have a couple of meetings next week where I can bring the subject up. Whether we can do anything to help remains to be seen.


PART THREE of Sara’s travel blog is here.

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