When you think of music in prisons, you might think of inmates playing harmonicas or strumming guitars alone in their cells—not top hats, a brass section, and a lively rendition of Everything’s Coming Up Roses. But that’s what journalists got when they visited New Bilibid prison in Manila in June to observe the inaugural performance of a 100-member Bureau of Corrections Grand Orchestra and Chorale—made up of convicted thieves, kidnappers, and murderers.
The room was decked out almost like a dinner theatre, with tables and refreshments for visiting families and prison staff, a stage skirted with ruffled curtains, and a smoke machine. Fidel Rana, who is serving two life terms for double murder, played his father’s old trombone. “Before this we used to sit around inside with our thoughts,” he told Al Jazeera. “Now we practise, and the days go by quicker.”
The New Bilibid performance’s resulting YouTube clips are well on their way to becoming a successor to last year’s Internet sensation from the Philippines: the dancing inmates of Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Centre. (Orange jumpsuit-clad prisoners danced to Michael Jackson songs such as Thriller; recent performances have proven increasingly sophisticated, with props, costumes, and more complex choreography.) Some experts, though, see the New Bilibid initiative as a well-orchestrated public-relations campaign that diverts attention away from the human-rights concerns that dominate most press attention to Filipino prisons, which are notoriously overcrowded, disease-ridden and disorganized, with child thieves incarcerated alongside hardened criminals. “Arts in prisons have become quite fashionable in recent years,” says Leonidas Cheliotis, lecturer in criminology at Queen Mary University of London. He worries that the publicizing of such programs disproportionately “beautifies a very punitive environment.”
Additionally, while many of these programs aim to prepare criminals for better post-prison integration (fashion design and painting are other examples), there is no evidence that they help reduce recidivism.
And it isn’t always about rehabilitation. By playing in the orchestra, prisoners can earn points for good behaviour, which can lead to having their sentences commuted. Cheliotis, while a fan of prison arts programs—studies have shown that exposure to the arts in prisons leads to higher self-esteem, better relationships with fellow inmates, and lower incidences of depression and self-harm—is skeptical of the broader function of this particular initiative. “On the one hand, the arts are about free expression and autonomy. On the other hand, participation in an arts program is in this case used as a mechanism of prisoner control.”