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Adapting group music sessions for lockdown at HMP Pentonville

Adapting group music sessions for lockdown at HMP Pentonville



In normal times, the occupational therapy team at HMP Pentonville run a comprehensive group work service, including a wide range of arts activities – but Covid-19 has meant having to rethink everything. Lead Occupational Therapist and Wellbeing Centre Manager Deborah Murphy has written this guest blog on how adapting their activities for lockdown has created new ways for people to connect through music.

At HMP Pentonville, the wellbeing centre wing – which houses a music studio, a ceramics studio and an art room – is usually a hive of activity, with men attending the centre from the main wings and the healthcare inpatient unit. However, with the advent of Covid-19, group work came to an abrupt halt. With no timeframe for starting up again, our team questioned how we could support the most vulnerable men in the prison: those housed in the mental health inpatient unit.

As the men were no longer able to come out of their cells, we started visiting them regularly and providing them with art materials, puzzles, and newspapers, but we knew that wasn’t enough. Those paper-based activities lacked the essence of what is important to the service: human contact and interaction. So while the therapists on the team focused on taking care of critical mental health needs, the team’s music teacher Dotan looked for a way to use his skills to connect with the men.

Initially he considered creating activity packs to engage the men with creative music making, alongside word searches, poetry exercises and guidelines around how to approach song-writing. However, as the lockdown progressed, it became clear that more was possible, and he started to think of increasingly creative ways to bring music-based activity into their cells.

Music sessions ‘through the hatch’

As the team explored where music might fit in with the lockdown, we started wishing we had our own resident Johnny Cash (the US country singer who performed gigs in prisons, including San Quentin prison in California) – and then we realised we might have hit on something. Dotan came up with the concept of ‘through the hatch’ music sessions on the inpatient unit. This unit is unique within the prison in that there are only 11 cells on each landing, populated by men who are each well known to the clinical team caring for them. This means it is small enough to be a conducive environment for what Dotan had in mind.

Although singing in a shared room was not possible during lockdown, we risk-assessed the scenario of Dotan singing alone in a corridor at a substantial distance from the men, who would also be singing from the safety of their own cells. Each door has a small hatch that would be open to allow the sound and the songs to travel.

But how could we make it work? What kind of engagement would it be? What would we do if the person in the next cell along didn’t like their neighbour’s music? How could we make it more than just entertainment? How would we make it engaging and meaningful?

When Dotan explained his plans to the wing staff, he received a mixture of smiles and quizzical faces. His next step was to speak with the participants about what they wanted from the sessions and find out their musical interests and aspirations; and as the conversation flowed, something began to take shape. He was soon assessing the needs of the individuals on the other side of the door, working out the best way to work with them and communicating possibilities. Before long, they were belting out a song, separate in their cells, but together through music.

The acoustics in the healthcare corridor were very lively, and as Dotan’s music spread down the corridor, more and more people were keen to join in. Everyone was talking about music, people got involved by suggesting songs and, most importantly, they began to sing. For Dotan, having everyone behind cell doors – often with just their eyes visible – made it a challenge to read the room. Dotan began to pick up new signals. Some people retreated to the back of their cells, and he learnt how he might read that and respond, how he might engage those people, and be sensitive to their needs. The unit has men with serious mental health issues who bang pipes and doors repeatedly in frustration. Dotan has found ways of encouraging them to transform these acts into a form of communication through music.

“In all honesty, it wasn’t the easiest transition to make. Despite many years’ experience of stage performance and running music programs in prisons, walking up the stairs of the hospital wing, guitar in hand and about to somehow engage with participants during a global pandemic, was not something a music career really prepares you for!” – Dotan Cohen

Beyond entertainment

Over the weeks, a consistent way of working emerged. Through listening to advice from the staff on the wing and working out individual plans for participants, Dotan was able to work more and more effectively with them to meet their needs. His favourite moments were when he would start a song with a participant on one side of the corridor, and then from various hatches across the corridor, they would hear a sung response.

The clinical team started to incorporate Dotan’s notes from music sessions into their meetings. As a team, we began to understand that his sessions were something beyond entertainment; they were contributing to the care of the people on the wing.

These sessions have opened my team’s eyes to the possibilities of working with people who aren’t able to leave their cells to interact with each other in new ways. It was evident that without leaving their cell, it was still possible for someone to benefit greatly from a human interaction rooted in musical experience.

Prior the pandemic, we would never have considered trying such sessions. Even then, officer shortages and redeployments frequently presented a barrier to the consistent running of the group activities. Covid-19 has forced us to think more creatively about what we can provide to people within their cells. We have learnt that if we cannot get patients to the group, we can bring the group to them.