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The music label helping prisoners dream beyond their cell walls

When cells slammed shut in lockdown, rehabilitation hopes stuttered. Prisoner label InHouse Records stayed in the groove though – using music to boost skills for a brighter future

It looks like a record label, acts like a record label and even sounds like a record label, and yet InHouse Records is in essence anything but, according to project founder Judah Armani.

“Fundamentally it’s a Trojan Horse,” the Big Issue Changemaker asserts, of the award-winning social initiative operating in and out of English prisons.

The scheme has massively boosted positive behaviour among participants, practically none of whom go on to reoffend. “It is a record label for sure,” Armani elaborates. “It’s aspirational. But actually, it’s not about the music industry. It’s not even about music therapy. It’s about choice. And choice reminds us we’re humans.”

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InHouse Records runs workshops – or at least it did until Covid-19 restrictions hit – that support offenders in all of the work that a conventional record label facilitates and engages in, from songwriting, rapping, musicianship and production to artist management and other associated technical and creative endeavours. All in the pursuit of the same end product: recorded music, mixed and mastered to a professional standard covering a vast array of styles from rap to reggae, rock and folk, which InHouse then platforms through publishing and distribution partnerships with major music industry players such as Sony and Universal.

It’s an initiative which can’t help but let some of those involved dare to dream beyond prison walls, perhaps all the way to success and fame. Yet InHouse is grounded in something much more elementary than that, and almost all of the people who engage with it – around 70 people inside prison at any one time, plus about another 40 “graduates” outside – seem to understand it. 

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The process of making music creates the skills that you need not just to be a better musician, but a better employee, a better husband, a better father

“It’s not about becoming famous, for a lot of them,” says Armani, who has worked in the music industry with Fender guitars and artists such as Jamie Cullum, yet whose background and passion is in product design as a driver for social change. “It’s about actually being taken seriously and being given the space to engage with and do something meaningful,” he continues. “The beautiful thing is that the process of making music creates the skills that you need in order to not just be a better musician, but a better employee, a better husband, a better father.”

Across the four south-east of England prisons in which InHouse operated pre-pandemic, staff observed a 428 per cent increase in good behaviour incidents among participants. Among graduates, a reoffending rate of less than one per cent has been recorded.

Armani has since found himself inundated with opportunities to enhance and expand the project. Or at least he did, until Covid-19 struck. Not only were InHouse’s workshops suspended, but prisoners suddenly found themselves confined to their cells almost day-round – choice all but extinguished.

As Armani sees it, he had made a “promise” to InHouse’s members, “and I wasn’t going to let something as tiny as a microbe get in the way of that promise. So, we needed to find a way of connecting with these guys, immediately.” A new product was born: AUX, a weekly music magazine, covering creativity, songwriting, rhythm, production and culture, extensively featuring contributions from InHouse participants.

Another of Armani’s Trojan Horses – “education by disguise,” as he puts it – AUX is proving even more pervasive than the record label, with demand soaring not just among prisoners actively interested in music, but even among the general prison population, eager for regular reading material to relieve the boredom of being locked up in lockdown. More than 50,000 copies of the magazine have been distributed so far, to prisons both in south-east England and on the east coast of the USA. 

“We went from meaningfully connecting with maybe 100 people a week to now a few thousand people across multiple prisons,” says Armani. “That’s been an incredible shift that wouldn’t have happened had the pandemic not forced our hand.” Once Covid-19 restrictions begin to lift, Armani hopes that InHouse will receive the access, support and funding it needs to get more prisoners than ever involved with workshops, further spreading the proven benefits it can bring. 

Towards this article, Armani asked some of his participants to write something in response to the simple brief ‘My Big Issue’. Unsurprisingly, many of them chose to express themselves how they know best – through rhymes. If we showed some compassion, a little of give/we could combat the big issue outside and within, concludes a set of verses by one InHouse graduate, rapper Cas Ghostman. At the end of the tunnel, there’s always light/through the pain and struggle you’ll be alright, goes the refrain to Growing Up in Jail by Kingshay Bature, AKA Tyno. 

The accountability, hope, aspiration and eagerness to communicate implicit in the lyrics presents more compelling proof of InHouse’s successes and importance, reckons Armani, than any statistic ever could.

“When you can make a bit more sense of your past and understand a bit more about the choices that you made and the context that you made them in,” he reflects. “It gives you the rocket fuel to make a better future for yourself.”

This article is from a special edition of The Big Issue magazine. Get a copy of ‘Locked Up in Lockdown‘ in The Big Issue Shop or purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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