Inmates and staff at Ngawha Prison are preparing to go into battle on May 19 - but the only weapons they'll use will be guitars.

The inaugural Battle of the Bands at Northern Regional Corrections Facility is being organised to celebrate New Zealand Music Month and the success of the jail's music programme under a singing corrections officer.

When word got out that Claire Braiden used to sing in pubs and clubs around the UK before she started at Ngawha two years ago, inmates approached her about starting a band. She discovered the prison had a stash of instruments not being used and set up a music room in Weka Unit.

About 10 inmates were involved in the informal programme including "amazing" singers, guitarists, a rapper and a prolific song writer, she said. They met as often as they could, about once a fortnight.


"We've got so many talented people in this prison, it's unreal. It's such a waste."

The Battle of the Bands would see staff and prisoner bands perform three songs each before the lead vocalists went head-to-head on the same song. All songs had to be covers of Kiwi bands in honour of New Zealand Music Month.

Three respected Mid North musicians would be the judges with trophies awarded for best band, vocalist and guitarist.

Mrs Braiden said staff and prisoners alike were excited. It would be extra challenging for her because she didn't know any Kiwi songs yet.

She was also setting up another band in Kea, the prison's youth unit, but her ultimate goal was to get the prisoners writing and recording their own songs. Inmates couldn't make money from music recorded behind bars but if they sold any songs they could choose which charity received the proceeds.

Songs penned so far included one performed at the handover of a prison-built house for the charity Habitat for Humanity and an Anzac-themed number called Gallipoli which won an Arts Access Aotearoa award.

Mrs Braiden knew some people believed prisoners should be denied opportunities like playing in a band. However, making music kept them motivated, and reduced their chances of reoffending once they were released.

"If they have something to focus on they're not going to come back here. And if I can rehabilitate just one person through music then I've done my job," she said.

Fourteen inmates took part in a day-long music workshop last Wednesday led by Wellington's Jhan Lindsay and covering skills such as song writing, singing techniques and stage craft.

"They're such polite and respectful sponges for musical knowledge," Ms Lindsay said.

The workshop was part of a three-day hui organised by Arts Access Aotearoa and Redemption Arts, the company contracted to run arts and life skills programmes inside Ngawha including Shakespeare Behind Bars, visual arts and cooking classes. Last year's hui was held at Auckland University; this year organisers held it at Ngawha so prisoners could take part.

One prisoner's tale of change through music

A Ngawha Prison inmate says music has given him a way of telling the daughter who barely knows him that he cares.

Sanity* is a towering man, heavily bearded and tattooed with a gang history that landed him behind bars.

He used to write the odd verse but didn't think they'd go anywhere, and he'd never played an instrument.

Despite his size he speaks softly and struggled with performing in public. It took him months to work up the courage just to rap for the men in his unit.

Ngawha Prison inmates will take on staff in a Battle of the Bands on May 19. PHOTO / Peter de Graaf
Ngawha Prison inmates will take on staff in a Battle of the Bands on May 19. PHOTO / Peter de Graaf

He joined the music group when he moved into the reintegration unit, writing songs, rapping and learning the bass. The first song he wrote was for his daughter, who was 4 when he was locked up.

"Because she was quite young when I came in here I didn't know how to talk to her, to tell her I cared about her. When she gets to hear the song it'll be me talking to her, it won't be just a letter I've written on a piece of paper."

Music had changed his mindset, he said.

"It's given me something to lose. It's taken me out of an environment that was all gangs and colours and negative sh*t . I'm surrounded by bros who are like-minded, we all keep each other out of trouble."

Sanity, who co-wrote a song about Gallipoli that won an Arts Access Aotearoa award last year, also hoped his music and lyrics could change people's stereotypes of prisoners.
"We are people too," he said.

Band leader Rewi* said music brought his fellow inmates out of their shells and helped them express themselves.

"Most men don't talk about their feelings. Music has a way of bringing that out."

Several young men who had never before had a chance to make music now wanted to pursue careers on the outside as singers, rappers and songwriters, he said.

*Not their real names.