Laurence Rugg, Good Vibrations facilitator, on why compassion works better than punishment

Laurence Rugg, Good Vibrations facilitator, on why compassion works better than punishment

No. 3 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Laurence Rugg, Facilitator, Good Vibrations


“Punishment is the last and least effective instrument in the hands of the legislator for the prevention of crime.”  John Ruskin (1819 – 1900 art critic and prominent social thinker and philanthropist).

Many of our prisons date from the late nineteenth century. They are places with huge chapels. God was seen as the answer to problems. They reflect the notion of many Victorians that God, in whom most believed, together with punishment and justice, would bring the changes needed in society. Even the very architectural additions such as the scales of justice that form part of the iron railings which surround HMP Leeds reflect this. How much is this relevant to today’s society? Sadly it seems to be at the core in many prisons. Sadly much of society still believes justice is served by punishment. And yet the figures for repeat offending remain persistently high, surely reflecting that punishment has been of little effect. There must be another way.

Equally, the education act of 1870 began compulsory education for all. Before that it had been the preserve of religious societies who provided school places so that the teaching of reading would give children the wherewithal to read the Bible. In truth, it was brought in to address the problem of child labour, to stop children being sent up chimneys. Again, as with prisons, schools were brought in to address societal issues. As with prisons they missed the mark.Not only did they do that in Victorian times but they continue to do it to this day. How many children fail at school because it doesn’t seem to address their needs? How many of those children go on to end up in the prison system? Many of the children in today’s gangs have failed to engage with schooling in any positive way.

Clearly there are also other factors which also affect these issues, but they remain issues which see prisons and schools failing for so many people in society. The reason for this failure is because society in general doesn’t address the needs of the very individuals staring them in the face. In the case of prisons, problems have continued because of both society’s lack of interest and, of late, because of the severe cuts that were made to the prison service in 2010. Things that were being developed were the first things the coalition axed. As ever, that is always the case with the arts. Similarly, Tony Blair’s mantra of “Education, education, education” had a hollow ring as the curriculum narrowed, teaching to tests and the dead hand of OFSTED proclaimed that schools were failing if they didn’t achieve the requisite number of grade A to C GCSEs. I believe the two issues are directly linked. This is why I mention them in the same breath. It is why many of us who think, as did several Victorian philanthropists, that change only comes about when you deal with what is actually there, and explore the rich possibilities a group of people could present, if dealt with in a practical and sensitive way. What we have is a society that, in general, only cares about itself. A society which is driven by money and what it can buy rather than a society which cares about its fellow human beings, that cares about the folk with mental health issues, personality disorders, drug problems and people who just don’t cope well with many things they encounter in life generally. Surely this is where reform is needed and where organisations like Good Vibrations come into the frame, both to provide help for those people in prison or out in society.

I joined Good Vibrations seventeen years ago at its inception. Cathy, its founder, rang me to ask how using the gamelan worked with prisoners. She had heard I’d run a course at HMP Hull. It was a question I couldn’t answer. As far as I’m concerned folk in prison are just another set of people. I had done projects with various community groups and this was just another group albeit with different needs. If anything was different it was that people in prison, as with other places, quickly become institutionalised. That’s one of the glorious things about Good Vibrations that folk often say, “ I forgot where I was.” The effect of the music and nature of the work takes them into a different space, where they can forget, for a while, their present concerns. It relaxes them.

What Good Vibrations can and does do is provide a stimulus to build confidence to work as part of a group and produce something they have made together. This is no mean achievement for anyone, let alone people who are locked up. To this end, we facilitate most of the time rather than dishing out instructions for what is required, although that isn’t entirely excluded. To get this to happen demands a lot of faith in the product – creativity. This is never straightforward and easy because it demands that the facilitator encourages people to talk, listen and discuss. Again, the most common feedbacks are, “I was listened to” and “I was treated as a human being.” But what does this say about the experience of many in prison? One of the officers working on a PIPE (psychologically informed, planned environment) unit simply said, “When you open up in the morning it doesn’t hurt to ask how they are today.” And in one such unit I visited I asked a prisoner what they thought was different about being on a PIPE unit. He said, “Well, when you come back from a course an officer says, how did it go? They show an interest in you.” Simple, but very human things. Things missing in institutions which all too often simply don’t care.

It would be so good if changes could be made in prisons that seriously address such issues, where officers are given training in psychology and interpersonal skills. This costs money but even more than that – a will to make tackling the issue of reducing reoffending real and crucial. It needs people with skills to turn people around by providing the right environment to make this happen. Such is the case in Norway where they reckon they can do this, at most, over a timescale of seven years! Opportunities have been missed. When many officers retired in 2010, a priority could have been made to recruit and skill up those new recruits. However, the only thought at the time was to save money! In addition, to go back to my point at the beginning “society still believes justice is served by punishment.” Society doesn’t care.

I really appreciate the experiences I have had in working for Good Vibrations. Knowing that a group who may have been difficult to manage can pull themselves together to produce a performance on the last day of a course is so good. That’s because they really don’t want to let themselves down. That is part of what they’ve learnt in a week. They have found some self respect and what it is to be part of a group. I think the important issue to keep in mind is that although we use the gamelan to create music our courses are not primarily about making music but about providing a space for people to develop confidence, team working, creativity and a sense of worth. A facilitator uses his or her psychological skills to develop all these things in the short space of a  week. It sharpens ones ability to push things in a certain way, to let things go, to give people space to take on things they may never have dreamt of. Working for Good Vibrations isn’t always easy. It has changed the way I view so many things. It has changed my life.


Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Sara Lee, CEO of Irene Taylor Trust, on the power of the arts

Sara Lee, CEO of Irene Taylor Trust, on the power of the arts

No. 2 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Sara Lee, Artistic Director, Irene Taylor Trust


“The purpose of arts education is not to produce more artists, though that is a by-product. The real purpose of arts education is to create complete human beings capable of leading successful and productive lives in a free society.” Dana Gioia

I’m fortunate enough to spend my working life observing discovery, positivity and success. The majority of these events have happened away from the public eye so haven’t been lauded by thousands, but each and every one has had long lasting and sometimes life changing impacts on those who have experienced them.

Since 1984, I’ve been working as a musician in HM Prisons. The role has taken on various guises, formerly as music co-ordinator at HMP Wormwood Scrubs and latterly, as Artistic Director of the Irene Taylor Trust, an organisation which is committed to delivering imaginative and creative music projects with people in the criminal justice system and those outside who remain in touch with it.

What started as a 2 hour a week evening class in HMP Wormwood Scrubs quickly turned into a full-time job lasting 11 years. Working there had a profound impact on me as a musician and a human, as I witnessed the numerous personal and social benefits creating music offered the prisoners, as well as staff and the prison itself.  Over 3 decades later, I still see the worth of having music in prisons, maybe more so now as society is fractured and there are huge divides between the haves and have nots. It really does make a positive difference.

In the 1980s and 90s, the governor and staff at the Scrubs realised the vital role the arts could play in supporting prisoners through their sentence. The men were engaged, enthused, and committed, which of course spilled over onto the wings. In the Scrubs, all the arts tutors were given the freedom to experiment, which meant the offer was rich, ever changing, exciting, and rewarding, all the things we know the arts to be. We were encouraged to take things as far as our imaginations and prison security would let us, and there was always a creative project to work on. We would regularly receive letters from prisoners who had moved on, saying it was the best time they’d had in their lives, never imagining they’d have those times in prison.  The arts, and in this instance, music, was seen as vital for the wellbeing of the prisoners and the whole prison community.

Unsurprisingly, the education offer in prisons has changed considerably over the years. Little was written about it in the 1980s but at that time, offering a wide variety of educational, vocational and recreational opportunities to those in custody was a given. Crucially, the arts were embedded within these programmes, providing a vital complement to the more traditional subjects. I witnessed how access to the arts gave people the chance to break the cycle, creating additional opportunities for themselves and helping them live more productively. What I observe now is quite different.


The arts can have a positive impact on individuals and communities

Research shows that societies with higher levels of education and learning tend to be healthier, experience lower crime rates and greater equality amongst its citizens. This makes education in prisons absolutely key, bearing in mind that a high percentage of those who find themselves in custody have few qualifications, arriving there from often chaotic and unstructured lives. Education enhances prospects, and while no-one would dispute the fact that basic skills in English and maths are required for so much that happens in life, if the offer included the arts on a large scale, society would likely see more beneficial results. If education programmes offer more variety, people will have more opportunities when they leave prison. A broader and more holistic offer would create more all-round human beings. They would not only have the traditional qualifications with which to enter the world, but also the experience of engaging and experimenting with things they might be passionate about, where you come into contact with different people and learn new things which expand your mind. 

I had the opportunity to see how other countries viewed music as part of education and rehabilitation when I visited the US and Norway on a Churchill Fellowship in 2015. The systems in both countries understood the social value of the arts; particularly the intrinsic benefits they can have, such as enjoyment, enrichment, the reduction of feelings of isolation, and how these benefits can have a positive impact on communities.

From day one of a prison sentence in Norway, prisoners are fully occupied with education and work in preparation for release, no matter how long their sentence. Education is seen as a gateway. In prisons it receives the same rate of pay as other work and is considered vital to develop healthy, well-functioning individuals. Good quality and varied learning is also seen as vital to future employment possibilities and music played a key role in the daily life of every prison I visited in Norway. There was a clear distinction between education and activity and music sat happily in both camps. A conversation with the Governor of Halden made it clear why this was:

“Some people want to learn about it, some people just want to enjoy it. Both of these things are good which is why both things happen.”

Staff confirmed the main goal was to provide formal education, but they were committed to using music as a tool to achieve that. They understood that to learn music was a goal in itself but outlined how it helped them create a beneficial atmosphere for other learning.

It was also acknowledged that whilst it is of vital importance, a job is only for 7 or so hours a day, and this is what encouraged them to offer opportunities to help fill people’s down time. They fully support music and arts as core subjects. They believe that it gives people positive activities after work and at weekends, times when people aren’t fully focussed and occupied, when poor decisions can be made. UK prisons should do this too. Participation in any kind of arts activity which can be continued in leisure time could be the thing which keeps individuals focussed, fulfilled, and moving forwards.

“It gives me a substitute for drugs, for something to focus on.” (ITT Sounding Out participant)

In the US, politicians, superintendents and operational staff, felt strongly that music had a vital role to play in helping prepare prisoners for work by developing transferrable skills. I was told; it’s often an easier ‘start point’ for prisoners and offers a way in to learning for people who may struggle with the more traditional methods; it’s enjoyable and people feel success through doing it; traditional subjects don’t teach teamwork and communication in the same way as music does; to an employer, it’s more valuable to see someone can work and communicate effectively in a group than be shown a piece of paper which says they can sit in a room and pass an exam.


Creating Music. Transforming Futures

My experience seeing the profound effect music had on the men I worked with in Scrubs gave the Irene Taylor Trust its mission, which is, quite simply, ‘Creating music. Transforming Futures’. Over 25 years, taking part in creative activity via our Music in Prisons projects and our Musician in Residence placements has given thousands of people a lifeline whilst inside, with our Sounding Out programme offering ongoing support to those who wish to continue working with us after their release. Our projects do not set out to create ‘the next big artist’, they set out to bring people together to be inquisitive, learn, experiment, share and enjoy.

“These people [Sounding Out staff] can help you to make more music and, in exchange, actually it stops you from re-offending as well because if your focus has changed now, that stops you from re-offending as well.” (ITT Sounding Out participant)

Whether having music and the arts available as core subjects in prison works or not, is dependent on what you measure success by. The current rates of recidivism and the lack of arts provision in many prisons could mean it’s worth giving it a go, as there’s nothing to lose. Music and the arts won’t have all the answers – no one thing has all the answers – but my experience over the years has shown that it plays an enormous part in people’s wellbeing, their creativity, their contentment and belief in their abilities. This in turn leads to more cohesion, less fragmentation, wider opportunities and, crucially, more rounded human beings who have a stake in society.

Over the past year, we’ve all learned how vital the arts are. We’ve looked to music, to film, to all forms of creativity to alleviate the pressure of living through a pandemic. Those in prison are no different. Unsurprisingly, it was the arts organisations who were contacted first, to see what they could offer to those who might be behind their door for 23 hours a day. Calling these offers ‘distraction packs’ completely missed the point, that it was the arts that was looked to first, as everyone knows the benefits they bring. The arts should never be an afterthought. Unfortunately, over the years, this wonderful opportunity and experience with so much to offer has, in many places, become more of an add on, if it exists at all. Yet since March 2020 the arts have given us all relief, as we’ve listened to music, painted pictures and watched films. They’re so often seen as a hobby, but for millions of us, both inside and out, whatever we turned to may well have been a lifeline.


Let’s take the leap which everyone knows will not fail

Maybe we should trial an Arts Prison, where each person is given access to a full range of arts opportunities on a regular basis, and anyone signing up would be paid at a rate equivalent to other prison industries, giving it the respect it deserves. What a fulfilling and beneficial place that would be to serve a sentence, and it would provide some fascinating research. If an Arts Prison is a step too far, then we should ensure that arts subjects sit alongside the other offers, recognising and celebrating it for the impact we all know it has.

The good news is there are several incredible arts organisations and facilitators out there, all of whom, over the years, have been trying to find a regular way into prisons to share their knowledge and experience with prisoners.

The less good news is that funding will need to be made available without questioning what the programmes may cost. Many of these artists have decades of training and experience behind them which should be acknowledged.

We’re not asking the impossible. Almost everything is in place for it to happen, bar a slight shift in accepting that not all funding needs to support programmes with direct work-related outcomes. Programmes don’t need to be accredited, but of course they can be. There should be the option. The artists and organisations with the imagination, drive and a huge amount of experience are in place. Prisoners are there, ready and waiting. We need to take a leap which everyone knows will not fail, and make sure a range of music and the arts is there and available, and that every prisoner has access to it.


Twitter & Facebook @MusicinPrisons
Instagram @irenetaylortrustmusic



Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.

Dave Jeal, Chaplain, on what leads people to offend and the value of education in prison

Dave Jeal, Chaplain, on what leads people to offend and the value of education in prison

No. 1 in our blog series exploring creative approaches to transforming the criminal justice system.

Author: Dave Jeal, Chaplain


Can you tell us about your time working as a prison chaplain?

I’ve been a chaplain for over 22 years – first in HMP Ashfield, then at Bristol Rovers football club, and now in the Royal Navy serving with the Marines. They’ve all been working with completely different demographics.

HMP Ashfield housed young offenders and juveniles when I was there. I come from a working-class Bristol background and struggled myself when I was young, so I felt the lads were in some ways similar to me. They trusted me and I wanted to help if I could. They needed someone to believe in them. Just offering hope was my main task.

While I was working at the prison, I set up a church in one of the big council estates in Bristol, an area that was in the top ten indices of multiple deprivation in the UK. It was somewhere the lads could come when they were released and be taken care of.


What are some of the factors that lead to people to offend?

From personal experience of getting into trouble at a young age, I didn’t fit into any educational structure at all. I hated school with a passion. I’m dyslexic and most of the guys I talked to in prison had some sort of learning disability as well. Once you disengage, you’re very limited with what jobs you can go for, and you’re probably angry because you’re being told you’re lazy and stupid. Then it spirals out of control because you think, if that’s what you think of me, then watch this!

Most of the guys were not lazy or stupid at all. They just learned in a different way and were actually quite clever, but they were frustrated. We have a one-size-fits-all education system and it fails, and it makes people angry. They can’t fit into what society wants them to be, so they kick off, get arrested and feel hopeless. Then they live out their childhoods for the rest of their lives – unless there’s some break, they keep going back to it. In the Bible it says a dog always returns to its vomit. I can do that myself – keep going back and doing the same thing, even though I know it’s broken. And that’s what they’ve learned from an early age – that they will never be any good, so they might as well live that out.

It used to be £56k to lock up a young person for a year. It’ll be more than that now. How much would it cost to send them to a public school where they’d get a really good education? It’s got to be cheaper than putting them in prison. And the misery they’re causing themselves, their families and the victims of whatever crime they committed – why would you put them through that? You’ve got so many clever people that the country could tap into, and we’d all be much better off.

Everything is pushed towards the end goal of exams, and if you’re no good at them, what are you going to do? It gets passed down in families, so if the generation before you has failed in the world’s eyes, they say ‘don’t bother – that’s not for us’. My wife was the first person I knew who’d been to university. She helps me; my eyes have been opened and my horizons have changed.

When the prison sent us to America on a gangs conference, the one thing I saw in US prisons that worked was the boot camp. It gave a sense of belonging, hope and identity. Americans are very proud of their flag and rally behind it, but we don’t have that here. Not only do we have a class system, but we’re fragmented in lots of other ways too. What do we have that unites us?


What are your thoughts on education in prisons?

Not everyone is academic. We need to find out what each person is good at and focus on that. Doing something you enjoy helps in other ways too. I like knives and axes. I get together with some of the Marines where I work now, who might be struggling with PTSD, we make knives and sheaths together. They love I and I love it, and it helps them to open up.

People know if you’re a shepherd or a hired hand. You can’t kid a kidder. If you’re a hired hand – that’s your job, but if you’re a shepherd, you care for those sheep – they’re your sheep. People who actually have a passion for justice and for the people they work with in prisons – that’s what’s going to work. If you employ people who are innovative and do things a bit differently, they will attract other people who will try exciting new ways of doing things too. Then things will change. We have to do things differently because it’s not working at the moment.


People with dyslexia are highly represented in prisons. How can they be better supported?

Whether you have dyslexia dyspraxia, or dyscalculia, you need a lot of additional help. Schools don’t have the time, money or expertise to really make a difference. There’s a brilliant centre for dyslexia in Bristol, but it costs money. Specialist support should be more widely available. It is estimated that up to 85% of male offenders have some sort of learning disability – it’s not just a few people. And they’re the ones that got to prison. How many more didn’t get to prison, but are facing similar problems?

There are over 80,000 people in jail right now, costing the country a lot of money and a lot of misery. Spend it on doing something positive for those people and for the country, because they’re very bright, clever people. They’re valuable.


How does faith help people in prison? 

I say to the lads, OK, so you’ve made some mistakes. Well, let’s have a look at some of the people in the Bible, and see what bad things they did. You’ve got murderers, thieves, all sorts in there. But God can use them, and he tends to use them more than the people who’ve got it sussed. I quite like things to be a bit prescriptive. Maybe that’s why I like the military. The Bible says, ‘don’t do that, because this is going to be the outcome’. It’s easy to understand and it gives you a sense of belonging.

I’ve found church quite difficult because you have to read a lot, and also it’s very middle class. When I first got involved, people would ask me to come round for a meal. I didn’t know anyone who would do that. And all the singing songs and playing music – it was odd to me. I remember once, someone asked me over for a meal and then took out his guitar and started singing. I freaked out and left. I didn’t realise it was normal in that church.

I grew up in a very, very white working-class estate. I’ve learned as I’ve grown older to be a bit more open minded, but when you come from a council estate, that’s all you know. The thing is to learn to open your eyes and find out what the world is like.

We need to stop putting people into boxes. There are some things you’ve got to conform to, like not breaking the law, but on the whole it’s good to be able to express yourself and say ‘this is how I feel’. Everyone needs the chance to be heard and told that their point of view is valid.


Veterans can be vulnerable to offending. What can we do as a society to help them? 

Most of the lads are quite young in the Marines. When they leave, they’ve spent their lives being told what to do and have become institutionalised. There is a resettlement programme, but they still don’t really know how to look after themselves.

They’ve built really strong bonds and a sense of identity and belonging that they’ll hold onto for the rest of their lives. Once a Marine, always a Marine. But they may not be with other Marines and there’s this sense of grieving.

That’s where organisations like the church could do more and should do more. We’re supposed to be a community for every living soul; we’re to care for them and love them. The church doesn’t always do that very well. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, my role is to be there and help you on your way.


Do you have any final words of advice?

Do things that really help people change:

At HMP Ashfield I took some of the lads abroad to give them new experiences. Every year I took some to football camps in Albania. It broke their hearts. They thought they were poor living on estates in Bristol, but these guys didn’t even have any shoes and their living conditions were terrible. They were lovely people, and the lads wanted them to know that they cared about them and that weren’t forgotten. Thinking about all the guys I’ve taken on these trips, I reckon 75 – 80% haven’t reoffended again. I’m still in contact with some of them now.

Find out what rocks their boat:

Everyone has a skill that no one else has got and when they find that, they’ll be absolutely outstanding. We just need to help them find what it is and polish it. It needs to start from an early age and keep giving people opportunities to try different things.

Give them hope:

They need something they can hold onto that’s for real – not just a concept. They need belief, to feel part of something and feel cared for. These are just basic humans needs.

Hope can help break the cycle.



Good Vibrations has worked in prisons and young offender institutions since 2003. We see the destructive effects on people of living within our overstretched, under-resourced criminal justice system. We want to understand how people can be better supported before, during and after their contact with the criminal justice system.  We have commissioned a series of blogs from a range of experts, including those with lived experience and their families. Every Thursday for the next four months, we will bring a different voice with their own unique perspective and ideas. At the end of the series we will publish a report drawing together the themes and recommendations.