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Soul conversations


  • Picture of Judah Armani
    Judah Armani
    Associate Designer, Royal College of Art and Rhode Island School of Design
  • Arts and culture
  • Business and entrepreneurship
  • Community and place-based action
  • Design
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Work and employment
InHouse Records, Guy Bell / Alamy stock photo

A designer’s unorthodox approach is transforming the way education is delivered in prisons across the UK and in the US.

As a designer, I am drawn to apply my practice to the edges of society. These are the places that design rarely engages with, where I can embed my practice for at least a decade, allowing me to forge meaningful relationships over time. After spending my first decade applying design across homelessness, I was drawn to work with our criminal justice system.

I began my second decade of embedding with one question: can I contribute to reducing recidivism in the UK through service design? While I am still exploring the answers to this question today, the last seven years have so far yielded a portfolio of interventions resulting most profoundly in the creation of InHouse Records, which is both a functioning record label and an unorthodox approach to education that operates in eight prisons in the UK and US.

InHouse Records transformed the tasks associated with a functioning record label into an entire education system. Not just music, but maths, English, interview skills and IT skills. Over the years, the InHouse programme has also grown to include Aux Magazine, the UK’s only music and cultural magazine designed by current and former prisoners exclusively for those currently serving sentences, and ‘Lucky13’s’, a weekly set of non-linear distance learning cards providing recognised accredited qualifications.

Aux Magazine

Above: Aux Magazine.

Systems of punishment

Britain has always had a profound relationship with punishment. From the stocks to public executions, in earlier times punishment was a designed deterrent towards transgressive behaviour. Today, with a reoffending rate that wobbles around 55% (according to Ministry of Justice statistics), custodial sentences have replaced that earlier model, becoming the primary means of discouraging criminal activity. Prisons are the new place to mete out justice, and regimes the instruments to punish the soul, in part by restricting free will and implementing monotony and anonymity.

To make sense of the criminal justice system today is to understand past systems and, more importantly, the thematic changes that have taken place over the years — for example, how we transitioned from capital punishment to imprisonment. This was my approach as I went for my first meeting at a London prison, ostensibly to teach English, but with a very different goal in mind.

Creative expressions

Beginning in 2016, I started visiting HMP Elmley, a men’s prison on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent, for weekly collaborative conversations with prisoners, governors, learning and skills managers, officers and probation officers. Through carefully designed conversations over the course of a year, and open studio sessions with the prisoners, specifically those identified as currently disengaging from any form of education or training, it became evident that creativity was the preferred language of communication.

Creativity offers the scope for expression where words fail and it nurtures the space for both cognitive and emotional self-awareness. By presenting lyric writing as a form of learning, we were able to provide the foundation for what could be a learning platform. Moving forward in this way, we were able to nurture enough trust to allow the prisoners to share future aspirations, helping us to build hope together; hope that the group’s ideas were being deployed into something that would ultimately change the focus of their days. Hope in the form of a reason to leave the wing.

Performance by Stickz. AAron and Ren at Latitude Festival, 2019 and InHouse Records, Guy Bell / Alamy stock photo

Main: Performance by Stickz. AAron and Ren at Latitude Festival, 2019.
Inset: InHouse Records, Guy Bell / Alamy stock photo.

InHouse reimagines education as an ‘aspirational lake of learning'.

Collaborative practice

Education engagement within UK prisons is low, so my immediate challenge was increasing engagement in prison education and reducing recidivism. A traditional deficit approach would have merely provided information we already knew and, invariably, focused on bridging the learning gap in the quickest manner possible. In a prison setting, this usually results in the provision of workplace training in low-skilled jobs such as industrial cleaning, providing education opportunities that are of little interest to many prisoners.

There are good reasons why this approach is in place, as it allows for upskilling at pace, but it risks alienating many prisoners. A collaborative approach, however, accesses prisoners’ existing skillsets by revisualising them through ‘core competencies’ such as communication, problem solving and leadership. For example, many of the individuals we work with understand portion pricing, product, stock, supply and demand — skills that may have been acquired for the wrong reasons but are nevertheless extremely transferable to business.

A different model

Because we wanted to make sure the project was stable enough to foster healthy dependency and the kind of consistency that nurtures trust and confidence, InHouse Records was set up as a trading business (a community interest company), not a charity. Creating an income-generating business with all profits reinvested in the business itself provided participants with the right fuel: a mixture of aspiration, sustainability and legitimacy.

InHouse reimagines education as an ‘aspirational lake of learning’, where numeracy and literacy are inseparable through music creation, and it provides accredited qualification and industry recognition. Learners might chart a pathway of management study, in which they are assigned an artist within the prison to manage, develop, book studio time for and promote. Or they might choose an artist pathway, via which they learn an instrument, music software or both.

The actual work performed is broken down into weekly tasks that are measured through the ability of the learner to communicate the task, the accountability of completing the task and the adaptability of demonstrating learning across the task.

Judah Armani at an InHouse event in 2018 and Judah Armani at and InHouse participants at mini-festival Pipefest Lancaster, 2019.

Main: Judah Armani at an InHouse event in 2018.
Inset: Judah Armani and InHouse participants at mini-festival Pipefest Lancaster, 2019.

Expanding outward

Since launching in 2017, InHouse Records has been 300% oversubscribed across all six UK prisons in which we operate, with a recidivism rate of less than 1%. Our collaborative approach ensures aspiration is hard-wired into the initiative, providing the prisons with motivated learners keen to engage with a different kind of education offering.

Indeed, years after InHouse was launched, in response to the pandemic, the same collaborative space birthed Aux Magazine. Articles are contributed by prisoners from across the entire UK prison estate as well as by InHouse graduates. This full-colour journal provides articles on wellbeing, life after prison and progressive learning through cultural and music cues. For the first 12 months of the pandemic, Aux Magazine was the only content exclusively designed for prisoners being delivered on a weekly basis to over half of UK prisons for free. Given its amazing popularity, we have continued to produce this magazine post-pandemic, exceeding delivery of 70,000 copies to date.

Our collaborative sessions also birthed a new way of delivering distance learning, especially to those who find themselves on the neurodiversity spectrum. Lucky13’s provides recognised accredited qualifications through a weekly set of non-linear distance learning cards offering a curriculum that can be completely designed by the prisoner. It has been formed and informed by neurodiverse collaborators across the prison system, innovating education through the use of colour, reduced words and safe fonts.

In 2020, we began working with a correctional facility in Connecticut, work which showed us that the vehicle becomes unimportant if the principles are observed: there, prisoners decided to create a fashion label. We were also able to approach the US initiative with the benefit of experience, leading us to partner with Rhode Island School of Design’s Center for Complexity, as we sought to ground the collaborative approach and enhance the core competencies revealed through our asset-based approach.

The journey onwards

InHouse Records, Aux and Lucky13’s help participants to become not only better musicians, but better husbands, fathers and citizens. InHouse graduates are invited to continue journeying with the label at recording studios across the south-east of England. These spaces serve as places to create music, but also as safe contact centres for fathers to meet their children, environments in which to work through benefit forms and housing applications, even places for probation meetings.

The journey with InHouse in the community can end whenever the graduate feels it is time to move on, and ending the relationship with InHouse in a positive manner is a significant step for our graduates managing their own relationships positively.

All of these initiatives began with the most universal design tool, one that is accessible to everyone — language. A language that can create far-reaching conversations that begin on the fringes of our society and land within the heart of our communities. Meaningful collaborations across space, time and culture.

Judah Armani holds associate design positions at the Royal College of Art and The Rhode Island School of Design and is a visiting professor at Musashino Art University. His work across the fields of homelessness and the criminal justice system has been recognised with 15 design awards for social change.

Recommended reading

In his forthcoming (May 2024) book, Society Driven Design: Co-creating Brighter Futures, Judah Armani explains the role of design in community development and the designer’s role in social change, drawing on his almost 20 years of experience co-creating with people who are homeless, incarcerated or on probation.

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