Scotland is a very unique corner of the world. So unique that it faces an independence referendum to separate from the United Kingdom this fall. Yet the most interesting element I was able to understand is their remarkably progressive prison system: generously funded, focused on education, and convinced of the powerful roll arts play in rehabilitation.

My first contact in the country was Joan Parr, a well travelled social organizer. Her position at the government arts bureau, Creative Scotland, entailed organizing the work of dozens of arts and justice organizations throughout the country. I couldn’t have been hosted by someone more helpful for the future of Musiciambia. She educated me on everything from the progressive Scottish incarceration system to the savory and peppery haggis (Scottish sausage).

I have to say that Scotland is indeed very different from the United States. For starters, the population is right around 5 million people ― Significantly smaller than New York City alone. Additionally, the diversity in the country hasn’t risen above 2%. Just as when I was in Venezuela, I realized that for the successes of this country to be translated to the United States we would need a totally unique approach to achieve these levels of success at home. The essential, underlying virtues and characteristics are what I must find and share with my own community. From there we can develop an arts and justice community that will really serve the heart of our country’s needs.

So, what are these essential, underlying virtues of Scotland’s prisons? Let’s go to Her Majesty’s Young Offenders Institution Polmont located just between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Here I was given a full tour of the premises housing incarcerated youth between 15 and 21 years old.

This shed light on perhaps the most progressive mission that Creative Scotland was embarking on. They not only want to enhance the arts programs in their prisons but also incorporate the security personnel to be a critical part of the process as well. There were constant discussions on how to educate the guards on the importance of the rehabilitative arts process as well as get them involved. According to all of the officers I spoke to, they never felt that this ever diminished their safety or overburdened them. If anything, they said, it made the officers safer and their jobs more meaningful.

In a time when violence is at its peak in American incarcerated communities, this anecdote speaks to the missions of our arts and justice organizations. It must not only be the job of the arts organizations but the responsibility of everyone working in the system to develop ways to humanely engage with the people incarcerated. This not only offers greater rewards for incarcerated people, but also for the employed community around them.

The second experience that resonated powerfully with me at Polmont was the overwhelming amount of resources invested in their education department. I regret to report that the education building I saw was not only in better repair than many of the New York City schools that I have worked in, but it was also in line for a major £3,000,000 renovation. Needless to say, it is this investment in the education of the most deprived youth of their country that helps characterize Scotland’s prison system as the most progressive and rehabilitative in the world.

HMP Shotts was the last prison I visited. Here lived the Scottish incarcerated people with the longest sentences in the country. Again, I was struck by the quality and newness of the facility, even more so once I had entered the education wing.

After being interviewed by one of the editors of STIR I was brought to the library to perform with one of the musicians at Shotts, Eddie. While performing alongside Eddie I was reminded of the universal effect music has on people. From prisons in New York to Caracas to Glasgow I have felt the same spine-tingling effect of music. The intensity with which these incarcerated men and women listen to every turn and gesture of the music repeatedly affects me around the world as an artistic call to arms.

Thank you for your continuing support of Musicambia’s work in arts and justice.


Nathan Schram