IN the austere chapel of HM Prison Barlinnie the most inspiring musical experience of my life is also touching the hearts of 80 inmates. Three of their own are belting through a six-song set and boisterous bravado is soon replaced by something softer.

You’re tempted to reach for a word like melancholy in surroundings like these, but there’s hope in this place too.

A guitarist is playing 12-bar blues with a note-perfect expertise authenticated perhaps by lived experience. In the swamps and fields of America’s Deep South it’s held that blues music is at its best when it’s performed by those who have known adversity.

Now, it’s a younger man’s turn to take to the stage with his acoustic guitar. This is Bernard and he’s clearly nervous. Later, he’ll tell me that he almost turned back in those final moments. “I just didn’t know if I was up to it,” he’ll say. He needn’t have worried.

In the seats below are sat men whose crimes have been considered sufficiently serious for their time to be spent inside Scotland’s hardest and most forbidding prison. As Bernard begins to sing I check around to see if any of them are also wiping their eyes furtively.

Nor is this the first charged moment. This occurs as the men, gathered from three different prison halls, file in and begin to take their seats. The handful of us who have been invited to the concert are asked to sit together at the back of the chapel. Each hall is called forward separately and Vinnie Gunn, a senior officer who works with Barlinnie’s Offender Outcomes unit, explains that street enmities and rivalries are live and active in here too. “We need to rely on intelligence from the halls when we decide who gets to attend an event like this,” says Vincent.

Soon, a young inmate - no older than 25 - stands up as he recognises an older man. He moves towards him and scenes from a dozen cinematic prison dramas crowd in upon you. But the two men are smiling and then they embrace. An officer tells me they are father and son and, for a few moments, you come to know what bleak beauty looks like.

What passes between a father and son in an encounter such as this in a place like this? Is it twisted pride; perhaps a sense of loss? Is there pity? Is there sadness and regret? All you see though, is love and with it comes an overwhelming sense of despair.

Glasgow Times:

The concert has been organised by the Scottish singer/songwriter, Jill Brown who also operates her own PR firm. She’s a former STV broadcast journalist who quit her job more than 20 years ago, partly because it left her feeling that this wasn’t what she was meant to do.

Ms Brown hails from a strong musical background - her father is a respected hymn-writer – and, inspired by her Christian faith, she felt moved to use the power of song to provide a voice for marginalised communities. After working with communities stalked by addiction and homelessness she began doing musical workshops at Barlinnie.

She’s also been diagnosed with PTSD after surviving from a violent relationship at the hands of her ex-partner.  “The experience has enabled me to identify more with people inside the prison system who have also experienced trauma. Suffering is a leveller because in its presence pretence falls away.

Glasgow Times:

“As soon as I started doing the workshops, I realised that this is where I should be,” she says. “There is so much untapped creativity among these men and many of them, owing to the circumstances of their upbringing, were never given the opportunity to make something of their gifts.

“Perhaps if they’d had then their lives might have had better outcomes. My hope is that by giving them a platform and an opportunity to sing and make music they might have something to cling on to in their darkest moments and also when they try to make a life for themselves at the end of their sentences.”

Two years ago, she established Conviction Records as a charitable vehicle for prisoners to produce and record their own music. Yet, she soon discovered that the cut-throat nature of the universal music business operated in the charitable sector too.

“We discovered a young prisoner who was a gifted singer/songwriter prisoner, but at the point when we were about to sign him up he was poached by another charity who felt they could promise him something more. I harbour no ill-will, though. The most important thing is that he continues to improve his life by making music.”

Jill has assembled a band of professional musicians for her own set which opens the Barlinnie gig. She’s a natural performer and a natural singer and dancer and it soon becomes clear that she’s developed a rapport with this captive audience.

These men tend to know fakery and inauthenticity when they see it, a skill that can be the difference between life and death on the street. And they know form years of working with her that this woman is the real deal and that there’s no judgment in her soul.

Glasgow Times:

She rounds off her set with a very slightly Glaswegianised version of a Paul Simon Classic: 50 Ways to leave Barlinnie (which curiously works without many of the lyrics having to be altered).

Vinnie Gunn has been a prison officer at Barlinnie for almost 30 years. His colleague, Barry Nicholson, Resource Hub officer has been here for more than 20. Their younger colleague, Gemma Egan, Health and Wellbeing Centre Officer has already been here a few years. You would normally associate such long stretches in the same workplace with a high degree of job satisfaction and professional pride.

Influenced by grim prison television dramas which portray these places as war-zones policed by uniformed psychopaths you were expecting something a bit more … chilly. Mr Gunn, ramrod straight and upright in his military bearing is one of those Glaswegians who effortlessly channels a “don’t mess with me” vibe. Yet, there is compassion in his reflections and an understanding of the environments which produce men like these. He is their jailer, but he is also their advocate.

“Look, we need to be frank here. These men have been tried and found guilty of serious crimes and it’s our job primarily to enforce the decision of the judge and jury. But we also understand that almost everyone in here has encountered trauma from very early in their lives.

“These men have lived in Scotland’s most deprived neighbourhoods where it can be easy to fall prey to violence and serious crime. I’m not offering a justification for their crimes, only that you need to consider them in a much wider social framework.

“Our fervent hope as prison officers is that after they leave here we never see them again. That’s the best outcome for us; for them; for their families and for society as a whole. And so, for those who want it, we have a resource hub in here where we work with outside agencies such as Citizens Advice; housing associations, the NHS and low-level counselling providers. The aim is to help these men live the lives they were meant to lead when they leave here.”

Glasgow Times:

This is the point at which the reactionary forces of conservatism yell “Soft touch” and “make the time fit the crime”. They lament the costs of failure in breaking “cycles of re-offending”. And they choose to overlook crimes and misdemeanours if they’re committed by people in smart suits with political connections that come with in-built escape clauses. There’s no pity and no serious attempt to understand; only vengeance that excludes mercy.

AT the end of the concert I approach Bernard, the Bar-L troubadour.

“I thought you were different class, wee man.”

“Aw, that means the world to me, man, I’m buzzin’.”

“You should be very proud.”

“Aye, but I also want to make sure this is my first and last gig in this place.”

“Could I get a copy of the lyrics to your song?”

“Well, I don’t actually have a copy of them.”

Then, he takes my note-pad and pen and writes them out for me. So, this is Bernard’s song, entitled “Sorry Mum”.

“Am sorry mum for all the things that I’ve done.

Thinking sorry for the man that I’ve become

I’m sorry my lovely little mum.

Thinking where are you now;

Thought that I was gonna be the one

To make you proud.

Thinking, where are you now!

Thought that I was gonna be the one to make you proud.

Thinking …”