7 Nov 2017

How singing breaks down walls in a prison

2:49 pm on 7 November 2017

'That’s a good thing for me, to come out of that shell.'



Alice* has been watching a TV show called Naked Attraction. It’s a dating show, in which contestants’ naked bodies are gradually revealed to one another before they meet. 

One contestant is nicknamed the Elephant Man. “Everyone’s like ‘what’s the elephant man?’” she says.

“Turns out one of these guys has a tattoo of elephant ears… Right there!” 

She and her friend Janine* burst into fits of giggles. 

When Alice isn’t working, or studying (she’s just qualified as a gym instructor,) she’s on lockdown in her cell at Auckland Region Women’s Corrections Facility. 

She watches a lot of TV.


Alice, Janine, and seven other prisoners mentored by singer Tina Cross, spent two and-a-bit days preparing three songs and a medley to perform in front of their peers in the prison’s gym last Friday afternoon. 

The aim of the show, entitled “The Power of Song,” is to raise awareness for White Ribbon - an organisation that aims to stop family violence. It’s something that has affected many of the women sitting on grey plastic chairs in the prison gym, which is a large shed-like building set in the facility’s 45 hectare grounds in Wiri, South Auckland.   

The prison's director, Cheryle Mikaere, says the benefits of extracurricular activities like this also help with self esteem and confidence. 

“I’m very proud of our wahine … The world is their oyster and when they go out into the community they are not to come back to me, they are to absolutely stay out there with their whānau, with their children… that’s where they belong, not here with us.” 

The walls inside the gym are painted in blocks of bright colour - red, yellow, orange, blue, teal, with large black silhouettes of women playing sport and the motivational slogans: 

“Play hard, play fair.” 

“Attitude is everything.”


Alice and Janine both sang in the choir. Both say they wouldn’t have done it outside of prison. 

“I think I was lacking confidence and I’m really too shy, so me doing this music is, um, a boost of my confidence and making me not as shy as what I used to be. So that’s a good thing for me, to come out of that shell,” Janine, who has qualified as a beekeeper while in prison, says.

Both of them performed solos. 

When they do so, the audience of prisoners and Corrections officers that had piled into the gym erupts into shrieks and cheers and claps and whistles. Mothers breastfeed babies, and prison guards take turns passing around a delightfully chubby little boy of about 10 months.  

Alice sings part of Coldplay song Fix You, and Janine shimmies to the front of the group and dances to The Jackson 5’s Blame it on the Boogie

“I think because the whole time when we were rehearsing with Tina, I was probably the one that kept on moving my legs all the time when we were dancing,” Janine says. “And she just says, ‘you can go out and do that dance now, do a dance if you want to,’ and I says ‘oh yeah, ok’.”

Alice says being part of the group helped her make friends outside of her clique. 

“It’s a good conversation starter for some women, ‘cause they might feel a bit shy to approach you otherwise. It's something that can start a conversation, plus it shows a bit of your vulnerable side which is, in a place like this, it’s not something that you normally share with others.” 


“The idea behind it,” says Tina Cross, “was to be able to come into the prisons with what I do - I sing - and I have a particular love of harmony work.

“Being able to come in and teach the wahine harmonies and, in particular, message-based songs ... songs that relate to the prevention of family violence.” 

Her song Walk Away, which was sung by the women in this performance, was used by Women’s Refuge and police in anti-violence campaigns. 

“Music and lyrics speaks through walls, it crosses all barriers and it is universal,” she says. 

“My interest in writing songs now is about the messages that I’m able to put out there. Part of that revolves around the fact that I can come in and work with wahine in the prisons and bring a universal language to them - bring music. Whether they feel comfortable in themselves, whether they want to be in a group scenario, and ultimately also face these messages head on as well.” 

After the performance, there are hugs all round, before the women head back to their rooms. The mums that live in self-contained units, where they care for puppies that are later trained to be mobility assistance dogs, wheel their babies off in pushchairs, while others stack grey plastic chairs, one on top of the other. 

The prison is at capacity - it holds 462 women, and some double bunk. 

Alice and Janine head back to their rooms - they’re looking forward to spending their Friday night watching Naked Attraction.

*Names have been changed. 

Video made with funding support from NZ On Air.