Australia’s first documentary musical: Prison Songs

24 November, 2014 by Press Release

The inmates of a Darwin prison are shown in a completely new light in Australia’s first ever documentary musical Prison Songs, as they share their feelings, faults and experiences in an extraordinary way – through song.

The show will premiere on Sunday 4 January, 9.30pm on SBS ONE.


Darwin Correctional Centre, better known as Berrimah Prison is the largest correctional centre in the Northern Territory. Originally designed to hold 115 prisoners when it opened in 1979, by 2014 it is overcrowded and bursting with more than 800 male and female inmates. 80% of the prisoners here are Indigenous Australians. Approximately half will reoffend and return to prison.

Granted unprecedented access to film inside Berrimah before its decommission in late 2014, Prison Songs offers a rare glimpse into life in a contemporary Australian prison.

At the heart of Prison Songs is original music, penned by Indigenous singer/songwriter and Australian of the Year nominee Shellie Morris, together with award-winning composer Casey Bennetto (Keating – The Musical).

Inmates break into hip hop, blues, country, reggae and gospel tunes as they tell their own life stories and the choices and events which led to them being locked up. Music becomes a way for them to reflect on their lives on the outside, and at the same time express what life on the inside is like.

53-year-old Phil has spent 27 years behind bars and took his first hit of heroin on the day his dad died. “The only place that saved me was the Berrimah Hilton. This is my home. When I’m in here I’m straight, I get my health back, I feel alive”, he explains, over the top of sweet harmonies from his female inmates.

Max and Dale, 27, form a hip hop duo on the track ‘The Middle’ about being lighter-skinned Aboriginals and feeling caught between two worlds.

Evangelical Pastor Bernadine breaks down as she sings the story of being found with drugs in her bag after being sentenced to 12 years through a moving gospel tune.

Wurdankardi and his ancestors have operated under Indigenous law, but he has also broken the laws of Australia. His song expresses the pain he feels of being away from the bush “All I think about is the mother country, I’m not doin’ nothin’ but the white man’s time”, he sings.

The stories each inmate shares through song are poignant, moving, serious, intriguing, surprising, sometimes cheeky and funny; a fiercely Australian, strikingly honest take on life. Literally locked away from society, music gives a voice back to these inmates and their failures and regrets, hopes and dreams.

Prison Songs is a co-production between Spearpoint Productions and Beyond West, developed by ScreenWest, Lotterywest and Screen Australia