top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe Hub

Calming Prisoners Through Song

Updated: Nov 8, 2021

Emma Dogliani's Singing Group Helps Prisoners Stay Calm Behind Bars

London soprano Emma Dogliani is proud of her penal reformer grandparents and is looking forward to renewing her role as a prison singing group organiser as Lockdown eases across the UK prison system. The Hub presents this blog, audio interview and playlist. Audio production by Cliff Stammers.

Reforming Law Breakers

Picture: Theodora Lewellyn Davies on her 90th birthday with her two daughters (Jane and Mary) and their families including Emma with black hat and jacket. Birmingham 18 April 1988.

Emma Dogliani's maternal grandparents Eric Roy Calvert and Theodora Lewellyn Davies met on the executive committee of the Howard League for Penal Reform and played a major role in the campaign to abolish the death penalty in the UK. Lewellyn Davies' illustrious family included Emily Davies the founder of Girton College, Cambridge. She was the first woman to apply to be a barrister at the Inns of Court, at the Inner Temple, and the second woman to be called to the Bar, on 17 November 1922.

Roy Calvert, was from a working class East End background and felt strongly from an early age about injustice within the criminal justice system. At the age of 14 he won a prize at his Hackney school for an essay arguing against the death penalty. He became a Quaker as a young man influencing him to become a conscientious objector in the First World War, a highly unpopular stance to take at the time.

Later, he gave up a secure job in the Post Office to concentrate on campaigning for reform. He travelled widely, often with Theodora, as chair of the National Campaign for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (NCACP), reporting on prison conditions and capital punishment around the world. In 1929, a resolution in the House of Commons calling for the abolition of capital punishment resulted in the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee. Calvert gave evidence before the 3-day select committee held in 1930.

The select committee recommended the suspension of capital punishment for a trial period of five years, but no action was taken. It concluded: ‘Our prolonged examination of the situation in foreign countries has increasingly confirmed us in the assurance that capital punishment may now be abolished in this country without endangering life or property, or impairing the security of society.’

Picture: Cover of The Death Penalty Enquiry by E. Roy Calvert

Calvert published a number of books on criminology including an assessment of this evidence in The Death Penalty Enquiry: Being a Review of the Evidence before the Select Committee in Capital Punishment, 1930. Tragically Calvert died in his 30s, in 1933. Theodora took on Roy's role as National Chairman of NCACP. The campaign eventually succeeded when the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act 1965 abolished the death penalty for capital murder in England, Scotland and Wales.

The Calverts co-authored The Lawbreaker: A Critical Study of The Modern Treatment of Crime, recently republished by Routledge. Originally published in 1933, The Lawbreaker analysed then and past British penal methods to discover the most effective ways to treat prisoners and reduce crime, and identifying where research could balance punishment and rehabilitation. The book holds pride of place on Emma's shelves.

Emma says: I am delighted to talk about my grandparents, they don’t get enough press. I didn’t pay much attention to their work when I was younger and I wish now I had asked my grandmother more about it.

Music in The Key of Life

YouTube video: J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier: Book 1, BWV 846-869 - Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 846

Excelling at the piano and enjoying performing gave Emma a niche as the youngest child in an academic family. After spontaneously crying at the beauty of playing a Bach prelude on the piano she realised music was more than just sibling rivalry to her. It was a medium she connected with deeply.

Later a pianist noted Emma favours music in the key of G minor. A musical key is a way of knowing which chords sound good together and what melodic notes will also work over these chords. It can be seen as a 'family of chords' or a 'pallet of chords'. The name of the key is the same as the first chord option, known as the Tonic.

Emma says: My favourite keys are G minor and F minor as they are close together and I do seem to be drawn to both! To me G minor is a beautiful, soulful key and sits well in my voice.

Picture: Emma Dogliani as "Ugly sister" Clorinda and Juan Diego Flórez as Ramiro in Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella) at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. (Clive Barda)

Emma's subsequent career as a freelance classical soprano, alongside family life married to Sergio and being the mother of their three children, culminated on stage at The Royal Covent Garden Opera House in a performance as "ugly sister" Clorinda in a January 2003 production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella). In a four-star review, Erica Jeal in The Guardian commented: Leah-Marian Jones and Emma Dogliani are lots of fun as the sisters, not so much ugly as ghastly...

Along with performing in concerts around the UK and in Europe over the last 30 years, Emma has long been interested in bringing classical music to new audiences. She has organised community productions in East London and in diverse settings from church halls to schools, street corners, boats, care homes and more.

Back to Her Roots

YouTube video: Aria from "La ci darem la mano" from "Don Giovanni", Mozart

Ironically, music took Emma to an initially non-musical new stage of her career. Her daily walk to rehearse Mozart's opera Don Giovanni with a fringe opera company passed a Category B London Victorian prison. Walking past the prison made her appalled and intrigued about what might go on there. Noting how young and enthusiastic her singing colleagues were made Emma conscious she was old enough to be their mother.

This made Emma think about what was next for her and feel ready for something different. Because of her grandparents, Emma was aware of a prison visitors scheme and consulted a forensic psychologist friend who recommended it as rewarding voluntary work. So Emma wrote to the governor and was interviewed by the head chaplain on her first prison visit.

Emma was nervous and not sure what to expect. The unchanged Victorian structure of the prison was "weirdly familiar" from seeing the TV programme Porridge and popular prison films. She found the experience "interesting and challenging" and although wary at first, was surprised by how normal everyone seemed. She remembers finding it odd that people were being locked up. "Such a strange thing to do, lock up so many people."

She has hardly had any rudeness from prisoners, instead they are typically pleased to see someone different in the prison. Emma shadowed a colleague visiting prisoners one morning a week and was soon left on her own. A chatterbox by nature, she eased into being friendly without becoming a friend, as she was advised. She admits, within certain boundaries, a friendship does builds up. Part of the role is becoming a key holder to access different areas of the prison. Emma takes the responsibility of going to the cell door to set up the conversation with prisoners in a corridor, or if trustworthy, in an office.

Emma has felt safe during these encounters and says they have opened her eyes to how limited her own life had been with its focus on classical music and family. She is aware some of the prisoners she is visiting have done "terrible things" and sometimes explores those actions in conversation. Emma sees her role as giving a normal reaction to what is discussed and being a reliable presence in the prisoners' lives who will turn up once a week.

Category B prisons contain people who have committed crimes such as murder, rape, other sexual offences and knife offences. Emma says she is conscious of balancing victims' concerns but believes too many people are locked up in the UK, particularly for drug crime or with mental health issues. She sees the lower levels of offending and incarceration in Scandinavia as an example to follow.

A sentiment echoed by retiring chief constable of Merseyside police, Andy Cooke, who said recently: Cutting poverty and inequality is the best way to reduce crime. Suggesting a current imbalance in the UK between punishment and prevention, Cooke said if he had £5bn to spend £1bn would go on law enforcement and £4bn on tackling poverty.

Pentagonal Diva

YouTube video: Emma singing Casta Diva Bellini Bassano del Grappa in 2017

Emma began talking about music with some of the prisoners. One day one, a keen guitar player, performed "a beautiful" self-penned song in the chapel. Emma talked to him about his music and then about her own music. Being in the chapel gave Emma the freedom to sing part of an operatic aria to him, which he thoroughly enjoyed.

He told Emma about a music project in Wormwords Scrubs with Sara Lee of The Irene Taylor Trust, who run music projects in and outside prisons, with the belief: Music can break down barriers and help people who have found themselves pushed to the fringes of society to become celebrated and valued members at the heart of the community. Emma wrote to Sara, who became a great support and then pitched the idea of a concert with professional musicians to the prison.

Before the official concert in the chapel, the musicians performed a couple of numbers in an atrium at the centre of the prison arranged on a pentagonal five-wing system. Emma sang the aria Casta Diva from Norma by Bellini accompanied on an electric piano brought down from the chapel. "I have sung in some amazing places but this was one of the most incredible experiences of my life!"

It was lunchtime so the prisoners were locked up in their cells but the staff came up to the atrium. Aided by the acoustics, Emma used all her operatic projection training to spread the sound right in to the cells. At the end, an enormous banging sounded from the cells. Emma looked quizzically at the staff but they assured her that was a good sign!

After that, Emma set up a charity and raised some funding from The Hilden Charitable Fund and persuaded the prison to support a term of ten interactive singing sessions. The challenges were that the staff were so stretched, they struggled to help, plus the logistics of getting the prisoners from their cells to the singing group.

Kate Shortt, a cellist and music improviser was one of the main tutors who focused on contemporary music chosen by the prisoners rather than less-accessible classical music. Emma realised her strength was organising the group rather than personally running the group sessions. At the end of the sessions, The Hilden Fund provided funding for a new term of activities but then Lockdown hit, stalling the project.

During Lockdown Emma has continued her role as a prisoner visitor. She used some of the funding to fund 40 prisoners gaining access to ten interactive playlists and worksheets developed by the Irene Taylor Trust. She has made links with a couple of officers running a non-music course and is hoping to piggyback another set of ten singing sessions to that, once things open up.


Emma read The Hub a couple of testimonies from prisoners included in a report on the singing group.

One young man troubled with anxiety and a history of violence, said: The choir has helped me, as since I joined the choir I am more calm and more happy and more polite to the staff on my wing. Emma has been the reason why I have been able to be the true me. Please keep the choir running as it would help others not just me.

Another participant added: I was very fortunate to take the opportunity presented by Emma. I had no belief in my ability to perform to others. If I did think about singing, it was to make them laugh. My anxiety about seriously trying to sing disappeared without me realising it. I learned so much, interpersonal skills, moral and ethical awareness, team work and pride, and received so much - including a rare feeling not often experienced in prisons, love.

Emma adds: So I think it (running the singing group) is such a useful thing to be able to do.

Next Steps

Picture: Promotion for Emma's upcoming performance of English songs by Paolo Tosti

Emma would like the singing sessions to become self-sustaining and not reliant on her input. This would free her up to take on a permanent role, she is considering, in the prison system. A major concern of hers is the potential long-term effects of the intense Lockdown regime on the prisoners. These risks were set out graphically in a recent report by UCL.

Outside the prison, Emma's other Lockdown project is to showcase the work of Paolo Tosti, a composer from Naples who moved to London and wrote songs to English Victorian texts.

Podcast, Playlists and Links

YouTube video: Puccini, “O mio babbino caro” / Fleming · Marin · Berliner Philharmoniker

You can listen to The Hub's audio interview with Emma and Spotify playlist by clicking on the links below. The interview includes the delightful sign-off treat of Emma impromptu singing Puccini's aria "O mio babbino caro". Thank you Emma!

The Hub's Prison Blues blog and 5-hour Spotify Playlist were inspired by Emma's prison work.

You can access Emma's music via her website, by subscribing to her YouTube channel and by following her Spotify account. You can attend An Evening of Songs by Paolo Tosti at St. John of Jerusalem Church, Hackney on 20 May, 2021.

If you are interested in the prison visitors scheme you can find out more via:

Chris Daw QC, the criminal barrister referenced in the podcast interview, is an active commentator on criminal justice as @crimlawuk, and the author of Justice on Trial: Radical Solutions for a System at Breaking Point. Thanks to Emma's reference, Chris is now also now the subject of Justice on Trial a Hub podcast, blog and playlist.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page