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The Band Behind Bars on BBC Radio 2

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Heather Davies Heather Davies | 12:20 PM, Thursday, 24 November 2011

Band

Rosie Wainwright from the RPO joins the prison musicians onstage for their final performance

Walking into a prison for the first time is a nerve-wracking and intimidating experience. As each heavy door slams behind you, the sense of claustrophobia increases - even in open spaces there's netting overhead, and the barbed wire is clear to see.

In September 2011, I experienced that moment first hand, as I followed a group of inmates at the Mount Prison Hemel Hempstead who were taking part in a rehabilitative music programme with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

My image of prison before that moment had been created from film and TV programmes. Part Prisoner Cell Block H, part Porridge, part Miami Mega-Jail, I was expecting a dark Victorian warren with scarred inmates and embittered staff. What I encountered changed my perspective (and my life) completely.

Built in the 1980s The Mount's red-brick walkways and green open spaces made it feel more like a conference centre than a prison. Perfectly groomed flowerbeds fringe the path through the central quadrangle, and we were surprised to see ducks nesting in bushes. The prison buildings themselves felt (and smelled) like my old school - lino on the floor and that thick wipe-clean paint on the walls.

The project was to be based in one of The Mount's old workshops, where at one point prisoners had been employed to smash CDs, but which now was a large echoey open space with the feeling of a school gym.

Walking into that room for the first time I didn't know what to expect or who I would encounter. We'd been assured that all the participants had been screened in advance, but we hadn't been told who these men were or what they'd done.

I shouldn't have worried though. Within seconds, a friendly face had shaken my hand and offered a cup of tea. I was introduced around and at first had a job distinguishing between the project leaders and the inmates themselves. In some ways, the thing that surprised me most was how normal everyone was - nothing like the TV-fuelled image of an inmate I'd had before.

Over the 5 week period it was inspiring to watch the inmates overcome their own personal hurdles - one guy who had never picked up an instrument before and only spoke to us in mumbles, by the end of the project had learnt a bit of bass guitar, drums and knew a couple of tunes on the marimba. It was amazing to watch his confidence grow.

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From a programme-making perspective, the challenge for myself and my assistant producer Ashley was to capture those breath-taking moments of personal development with sensitivity, but whilst making sure we could actually hear their words above the echoing din of the room.

Some of the stories were really difficult to hear - and every inmate we spoke to had a difficult story to tell. When I sat listening back to the audio we'd recorded, I frequently found myself in tears. Their honesty was incredibly moving. But the one thing they all had in common was that music had changed their lives.

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Heather Davies is one of the Radio Academy's 30 Under 30 and also works on Sounds of the 20th Century for BBC Radio 2. Heather is @heatherrhian on Twitter.

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