From a distance, 24-year-old Spring Hill Corrections Facility inmate Vili looks like your typical South Auckland gangster.
But then he sits down, clutching what is now one of his only personal possessions – a book filled with poems he's written in the three years he's spent behind bars. He's got two more books back in his cell.
But it's a poem he wrote when he was 17 that's gaining him attention outside the prison's walls. Vili, serving four years on serious wounding charges, is one of four inmates featured on a CD recorded at the prison in June.
The album If These Walls Could Speak came about after an 18-week song-writing class with Hamilton Music teacher Evan Rhys Davies.
That one of his poems was now a song on a CD hadn't hit him yet. "I'm just happy I've been able to convert my poetry into song."
He was taken aback when he first heard his song Shooting Star. "It's a bit different to what I'm used to."
But that's what Mr Davies wanted the album to be – a raw collection of songs straight from the heart.
Vili said the song writing process had been important for the inmates, allowing them to get their feelings out. He'd written three children's books while in prison and hoped to do something with them when he's released in 2011.
Mr Davies said that once he got to know the inmates he realised they were the same as everyone else – "if you treat them with some dignity and respect, they respond".
"I felt the most alive in that place because I was involved in putting value into someone."
Mr Davies said the guys' words struck a core with him. "They made my heart cry and I thought I need to capture these so it's not just me driving back to Hamilton that hears them."
They recorded the album in one day – each prisoner getting two takes each. "I didn't care about perfection. I just said `say what you want and capture your heart and just be proud of yourself'."
The CD made the inmates feel they had a life outside the prison walls – that they were human beings, Mr Davies said.
Prison manager Gavin Dalziel had noticed a marked difference in the inmates' behaviour since they'd taken the class. "I've seen some real positives from it. They are walking around, not really cocky, but with their chests kind of pumped up.
"They are conscious that they have achieved something positive."
Profits from the CD will go to Canteen. "The fact they are giving the proceeds to Canteen indicates a real change in them."
He had not ruled out running the class again and Mr Davies said he'd be happy to go back.
The songs can be bought on iTunes and online. To buy the CD, go to prisonsongs.co.nz
- © Fairfax NZ News
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