Rock ‘N’ Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution.

During my morning browse on Twitter I was directed to a blog via one @RogerHBurke formerly known as Roger Hopkins Burke of Nottingham Trent University. The fantastic blog “Prison Etiquette” is by Adam Mac and can be found at

As I lay in my cot earlier this morning I decided to respond with a reply. Was using my phone so when I went post response button my thumb hit the wrong spot and I lost the whole bloody lot. A bit mad, I thought this blog and its theme is worthy of more than a simple response as it affected me so deeply.

The subject is music in prison. I’ll start this off by mentioning that all the prisons I frequented had a local rule that no music should be heard in the adjoining cell. Therefore one is breaking a rule if music or TV can be heard in next cell or all over the landing. This however is commonly ignored by prison staff and prisoners.

When I received my first mini hi-fi in HMP Lewes I happily cranked it up to eleven and blasted myself with my beloved Heavy Metal and Classic Rock. I did get the odd frown and dirty look from staff and prisoners alike. “Fuck you” I thought, “It’s my music, my cell and I can do whatever the hell I like.” An SO came to see me one morning as I’d applied to be a ‘Listener’. He sat on my bed as I filled in the relevant paperwork and when I asked him a question he responded with a slightly pained look asking “would you not turn that down a wee bit so I can hear you?”

MY defence mechanism of attack kicked in, as it was prone to do in those early days, and I asked him what the problem was “it’s my music, my cell…blah, blah, blah. The irony of applying to be a Listener was not lost on me so I turned it off. We discussed compromise, others around us, ownership, identity, culture, respect, rights et al but what he said to me changed my life forever. What this lovely man asked me to think about was if I was sitting in the next cell and had just got sentenced, had received bad news from the outside or feeling down and out.

My Argos headphones arrived a couple of weeks later. Just in time for my move to HMP Brixton. Ya man! We liked our music there. From Dizzee Rascal, Bangrabeat and orderlies emulating ‘Wish I could Fly’ (Fly? Preferably off the top of the fours!) drove me insane. The walls in Brixton are quit thick so it was quite often a thud in the gut or vibrating bed that got one’s goat. Each and every day was a mish mash of mental torture that had to be endured as I was not yet a sentenced prisoner. Once I was sentenced my attitude changed and not always for the best. One hi-fi mysteriously blew up after coffee was spilt on it, another fell from the fours and smashed to pieces on the one’s as there was no netting and on a few occasions adjoining neighbours where seen with black eyes and swollen jaws after compromise had been rejected.

The suicide and self harm rates in prison are horrendous. The figures may be rising but they were bad to start with. Adam partly describes the discussion over playing music as follows –

“My counter argument was that some prisoners (myself included) use loud music as an immersion technique to clear their mind of stress. He suggested that such people should therefore use headphones but I countered that headphones create a feeling of constriction rather than a feeling of immersion, which has exactly the opposite effect. He accepted this but then said that one person’s need to de-stress does not give them the right to stress others out.

My answer to this was simple. I agree that the situation is far from perfect, but that’s why there should be a compromise. There are only three choices. Either the prisoner can always play loud music, keeping his own stress levels low but stressing others out. Or he could never play loud music, allowing others to de-stress but preventing him from doing the same. Or he could play loud music occasionally and only at a reasonable hour, meaning that everyone gets a time to de-stress. I said that, through compromise, no-one gets exactly what they want but everyone gets at least some of what they need. But my friend wasn’t happy about that. He took the view that if he ever has to hear another prisoner’s music then his rights have been broken and that is all that matters.”

The trouble with this, in my experience and of what knowledge I possess on the subject, is that it starts off with a misconception. How can the mind be clear, of stress or anything else if it is full of noise, even pleasing noise. When I bought my headphones I was able to fully immerse myself in a warm cocoon created therein and more often than not it blocked out all the other noise on the wing. The only thing that penetrated my cocoon was the alarm bell. Dizzy Rascal sings “A heavy base line is my kind of silence” good for you Dizzee but it ain’t mine. And by the way, I love that song.

The word compromise is used a lot in prison and I think it too is a false notion. Compromise is often conceptualised as being to do with the other person. For me, it isn’t. It’s to do with how far the ‘self’, ‘Id’, ‘Ego’ is prepared to go in order to survive. More often than not, when a compromise is being discussed, it is usually after a long period of annoyance and battling with rationale. If compromise is rejected by ‘other’ then the outcome can be violence to other or self.

The Institution of Prison is a horrendous place where compromise and rationale are words that have no meaning to many of the mentally ill and disturbed people therein. Rationale and logic are words that have no baring on the daily routine of a prison wing. It’s all to do with survival and getting through the day with one’s marbles still intact. On my travels through the system I accumulated three pairs of big padded headphones. One for me, and one for my immediate neighbours on either side. My compromise was their safety.

Unfortunately toward the end of my sentence one had to live in Portacabin type accommodation. Every word could be heard through the plasterboard. I had several mental breakdowns in my last six months. One day I went to several different locations within the block and there was not one place where I could find quiet. This was when the bad thoughts kicked in. The only quiet place was death. I was lucky, as I was by this stage a Listener and knew how to handle these thoughts. This was a daily occurrence that came to a head the night before I left for good. I was sitting in a room in the admin with my probation officer and had a complete mental breakdown. Apparently, I left my body, my eyes rolled in my head and I lay on the floor begging to be taken to the SSU. When I came to my probation officer was in bits. I literally could not have survived another night.

Adam gives a lovely example of having party in a block of flats or a house with neighbours and compromise. The institution of prison on the inside has nothing to do with the outside world whatsoever. The outside world and all its logic is left at the gate by all who go through it. The only place where semi-normal is applied is in the visits hall with friends and family. As soon as they leave, you leave, the game face is back on. Prison is hell on earth and it is meant to be like that. Music is pleasing and soothing and is a place to go to be safe. But, and there’s always a but. Music can kill.

About micsirwin

I'm a Postgraduate student at Queens studying Criminology, writer, poet and lover of integrity, dignity, respect and morality
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