Sara’s Winston Churchill Memorial Trust travel fellowship blog part 3

Lyric writing
Sara Lee, photo by Lizzie Coombes

Sara Lee, photo by Lizzie Coombes

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 – and continued in September, taking in the the East Coast – which you can read about here.

For the third leg of her travels this month, Sara has headed over to Norway. 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.

12th October 2015 – Bergen



I was invited to the main prison in Bergen today, to take part in one of the music class band sessions. Classes start at 8am which necessitated a very early start; the lure was a hot drink in a china mug, in the classroom, no questions asked. I smiled at one point as I looked over to see one of the men helping himself to a second cup of filter coffee from a glass jug, as it’s not something I’ve seen happen for longer than I can remember. There are around 220 men in Bergen prison and in addition, a very small number of women. They can study and work together. Right from the start, the whole place felt eerily quiet and for that reason, quite strange. Kevin, one of the men on the music group described his experience of the music class, ‘it gives you a natural tranquility, doing what we do here unites people and solves conflicts.’ To be honest, it seemed like the last place you would see a conflict as I don’t think there were any more than 5 people as far as the eye could see, either inside the buildings or when walking from place to place, for all the time I was there. I was told by several people that there are hardly any incidents of bad behaviour in the prison because, “the men are respected and we keep them occupied.”

Education is delivered by an outside school; the teachers are ‘imported’ from the school into the prison and the quality of education and the exams they take is the same as it is outside. 40% of the prison attend education, 30 of them study full time, the rest part time. When you are released, all qualifications are fully recognised by employers/universities and are worth something. There is nothing about the qualification which says you achieved your education in prison so in theory, you can be released, go to university/into employment and no-one will know your background unless you choose to tell them.

Before I left, I was shown round a cell by its occupant and was offered a profuse apology for its slightly untidy nature as, ‘I wasn’t expecting guests’. He told me that he and the others on the unit cook and eat together, and that there was a good vibe between prisoners and staff because, ‘they respect us, we respect them so we all get on. It’s a good place to be and it’s really helping me.’

13th October 2015 – Bergen


Where else might you be invited to lunch at 11am and share a table, homemade soup, bread, salad, cake and some quite extraordinary hot chocolate with prisoners and staff? Probably nowhere but that’s what happened in Bjorgvin prison today. Lots of other things happened too, including being invited to take today’s photos, all of which were taken in the prison. Bjorgvin houses around 90 men, plus, in a separate unit, the only 4 young people between the ages of 15 and 18 in the whole of Norway who have received a custodial sentence. Every other young person who comes into contact with the law is given the appropriate support to remain in the community. I was told there was a bit of opposition to the unit when it first opened, in the main because a good deal of thought and subsequently cash had gone into the design of the building. The reason was simple, ‘we know we need to invest in them now in order to save later.’

I also took a quick visit to the prison school, where men and women come to finish their studies either on day release or when they leave. The other option is integrating them into mainstream schools which they are also trying to do, because a wider variety of courses and subjects are available to them. The building is part of a retail park, and when you walk in it is clean, colourful and appealing. I was told that people seem to really enjoy learning there. I wasn’t surprised. I’m back there tomorrow to give a presentation to the men on the Promoter’s Course, and in return, I get to go to their show on Friday.

The rest of the day was spent in USF Verftet, (formerly the United Sardine Factory, once the largest cannery in Norway and now a culture and arts venue) playing bass in a band for 2 hours. My fellow band members came from a range of backgrounds and hadn’t been playing for that long; the programme is something that is offered to them when released from prison (and other places as well) should they want to continue making music. It is clearly very precious to them and something they look forward to every week. The group seemed quite nervous that a random woman from London had turned up to join them, possibly worried that I might be an unbelievable bass player. They soon realised that to be some way from the truth though they couldn’t question my enthusiasm or my ability to read a chart in Norwegian.

14th October 2015 – Bergen


Photo: Music room with a view at Fossane, the prison school.

Following my presentation to a group of about 15 people in the prison school this morning, we had an early lunch (10.30am) and drove to catch the boat for a 5 minute journey to ‘the island’; Ulvsnesyo is its name but I’m not sure of its spelling. It’s a very small island on which about 30 prisoners live, alongside no-one or nothing else apart from sheep, it would seem. The few staff that are there work in shifts and catch the boat to and from work. At the moment there are also 5 women at the prison, 2 of whom I met during their music lessons. The island is often where you go at the end of a longish sentence and you spend around a year to 18 months there, preparing for release. The options when there are either work or education, there are also special courses and other work you can do off the island – the people I spoke to in the school this morning were one such group – but this is not too common. One of the jobs at the moment is looking for the sheep to bring them in for winter; in March they let them go and in October they go and find them. I heard today that critics say the prison is too small, too expensive and too out on a limb and that things should be centralised. However, others feel that having a prison such as this is good for society as you can experiment for a bit; to see what works and how people respond to what is on offer to them. The island is part of the main Bergen prison and the teaching staff are the link to both places. In theory, you can work with people at the start, middle, end and after their sentence, provided everything falls into place.

After the music lessons I was encouraged to ‘have a walk round the prison/island and take some photos’, which I did, but for the whole time I was doing it, it felt extremely strange. People have their ‘phones with them and cameras are fine as long as you don’t take pictures of people. Whilst I thought the prison in Bergen was quiet, this was another level of silence. I took time to sit down and listen to what was around me and I could hear almost nothing asides from birds and the boat going back and forth.

This evening, a few of us are meeting to see if there’s any mileage for a European partnership project of some sort. There are a few ideas floating around which could be pretty exciting so if all goes well, this trip may have an additional legacy.

15th October – Bergen



This morning, I was presented with something a little more familiar. “I’ve come to get x for his music lesson.” “He’s asleep.” “Is it possible to wake him, please?” “No.” This change of plan at least gave Kjersti and I time to have a proper chat, until we had to go and get someone else, who also happened to be asleep but who was happy to come and play. On the way back to the wing, the man who had just had a lesson pointed me out to another man and said “talk to her”. The other guy looked puzzled but it turned out that I was the first English person he had met and spoken to in over 6 months and, quite remarkably, had lived off the Forest Road in E17 for many years when he was younger. Small world. After a quick presentation to staff at the prison, I went back to Fossane where the final preparations and rehearsal for tomorrow’s performance had started. Unfortunately the drummer had been recalled to prison so someone else in the group had been asked to step in. It wasn’t clear whether he actually played the drums or whether he had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time as the news broke, but tomorrow will tell.

This afternoon and evening was spent in the wonderful company of former and serving prisoners, those in recovery and a great team of volunteers at an organisation called Kalfarhuset where people meet to eat, talk, and sing in a pretty amazing 40 piece choir. Kalfarhuset works closely with the prisons in Bergen and its staff can visit the prison as often they want. Contact with prisoners starts a long time before the end of their sentence and when they are released, they have somewhere to go for support and to take part in a range of activities. It has been a lifeline for many and some of the conversations I had with people tonight were testament to that. I was not allowed to sit on the sidelines when the rehearsal started so found myself muddling my way through songs in Norwegian (not very successfully) and a few in English which I was slightly better at. It was a really great way to spend an evening.

16th October – Bergen



Today has been full of food and music which is not a bad combination. The culmination of the week-long Promoter’s course consisted of another early lunch followed by a gig performed by a group of serving prisoners who were supporting a professional singer-songwriter. The idea of putting on this gig was to give the men and women on the Promoter’s course experience of what it’s like to manage an event from start to finish, to book an act, look after the musicians, build the stage, rig the lights, assemble all the musical equipment, do a sound check and manage the space and the audience. They did a really good job, though as is often the case with these events, there are a few who do all the work and do it brilliantly and a few who are excellent at looking extremely busy whilst doing somewhat less. The audience comprised prisoners from the island and the open prison, school staff and a selection of dignitaries. Around 40 or 50 people came to support the event and the performances were given respect and praise. The deputy drummer did a fine job and was about to receive a compliment but randomly expressed a dislike of the current James Bond which sullied things a little. The afternoon finished with a long line of very tired but happy people leaving the building to make their way back to their respective prisons, halfway houses and hostels.

The past week in Bergen has been enlightening. I learned that the prisoners here are basically the same as those I meet in UK, however the system that cares for them is quite different. In Norway, the road to the outside starts on the day you are sentenced and people serving a long time are given as much focus and provision as those doing a few months. The ethos is to invest at the start of someone’s sentence to ensure the end is more positive for them and for society. Reasons to be pretty cheerful if you live in Norway.

19th October –  Bergen/Oslo



The train journey from Bergen to Oslo took 7 hours and was stunningly beautiful (see photo). Yesterday, I took a trip to the pretty much brand new Oslo Opera House which is work of architectural genius (see second photo). Fast forward to today where I arrived in a prison which was built at roughly the same time at the Opera House and is also mightily impressive. One thing missing today though, was prisoners. I’d heard that the whole prison had been on lock down every day last week but everyone was hoping that the normal regime would resume today. Sadly not. Tomorrow and Wednesday are not looking good either so maybe all I was meant to do here was speak to staff and look in disbelief at everything both the staff and prisoners have available to them. It is an extraordinary place. The facilities are unlike anything I have ever seen and today I was told the same by staff as I was last week, ‘we see this as an investment for everyone, both inside and out.’ I met the governor who was very interested in what we do in UK and is clearly a huge supporter of the arts in prison. All the other uniformed staff I met are equally supportive, so much so that many of them take part in the music productions which happen on a regular basis. Productions usually have an equal balance of staff and prisoners which keeps morale up and relationships positive. It would have been good to meet and talk to the men who take part on the classes (which include guitar, voice, keyboard and technology) but today I was only able to help mix a track and also see a couple of music videos the men have recently made. Should the men not arrive tomorrow then I am assured we will be able to sit back, drink lots of coffee and look at ‘back catalogue/best of’ collection.

20th October – Oslo/ Sweden



As predicted, there was no action on the prisoner front today – they are due to return on Thursday – so I was able to look at a number of films/music videos and be taken through the creative process step by step which for me, was completely new and very exciting. We also finished creating a backing track which will be handed over to the music group at a later stage for them to write lyrics to. It has felt strange to be in a prison for 3 days and not to meet any prisoners but the upside has been the opportunity to speak to staff and take time to look in depth at the work they deliver. It has been fascinating.

Following the class today we took a short trip to Sweden where I learned that the Norwegians go to Sweden to by their wine, the Swedes go to Denmark and the Danes go to Germany. The wine gets cheaper as the chain progresses. Tomorrow I’ll be at the prison in the morning, then I’ll travel back to Oslo in the afternoon in order to spend my final 2 days with the music teacher in Bredtveit women’s prison.

22nd October – Oslo



Another day, another wonderful group of committed and enthusiastic teachers in a Norwegian prison. Today I joined the prison’s 2 long-standing and fabulous music teachers for the day and the evening, gave an impromptu lesson on the sections of the orchestra and listened to a mash up of ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Queen of the Night’. Once again, I saw how successfully the Norwegian system links the inside and the out; the majority of the women who attend the evening session have taken part in the music classes both in and out for a good number of years. Tonight, the band was rehearsing a song which one of the group had written for a close friend of theirs who passed away last year. Next week they are going to record it onto CD. They are also planning to return to prison to give a performance at some point in the New Year, something the drummer felt quite nervous about. She told me this particular session was a lifeline for her and explained how much she enjoyed getting together with the other women and the teachers to rehearse and play. Both tutors said that teaching inside and out made what is a very difficult transition so much easier for the women and it was clear to see that the respect and friendship was a two way street. Similar to the other Norwegian prisons I have visited, the class numbers are kept small, to ensure that each person gets the time they need to learn and develop. They are each given a personal plan at the start of their sentence, no matter how long the sentence might be, and it is at this point the rehabilitation begins. There is no warehousing, no desperate need to cram as many people in a classroom as possible and no apparent need/desire to tick boxes. Of course they have to ensure that classes are of high quality and that results are good but with small numbers and dedicated, well-supported teachers, that is always going to happen, especially since in Norway, the support to help those in prison achieve great things comes right from the very top.

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