Prisons have been the centre of debate during the Covid-19 pandemic. Outbreaks have been a source of ongoing concern, prompting a call for early releases and remote parole hearings, though only a fraction have gone ahead. Given the overcrowded nature of the UK’s facilities, prisoners have spent the last three months essentially held in solitary confinement around the clock, with a clampdown on external visits and educational initiatives.
In light of this, InHouse Records took on the task of launching Aux, a weekly zine that has been distributed to prisons and correctional facilities in the UK and USA. Founded by Judah Armani, the non-profit organisation is the first fully functioning record label to be launched in prison, and is created with and by prisoners. InHouse Records describes itself as “a label for change wishing to see safer communities, less victims of crime, and for prisoners; rehabilitation and employment with dignity and aspiration”.
The zine was conceived by Armani as a way to “combat potential anxieties and frustrations and to support the prisoners without us being inside,” explains InHouse Records’ Hannah Lee, who taught graphic design at HMP Elmley in Kent prior to the lockdown and now helps to create the zines.
“The decision process behind releasing a weekly zine happened very quickly. When lockdown began in March, programmes like InHouse Records were suspended as only essential staff were allowed inside the prisons. For the 86,000+ prisoners in the UK this meant remaining in their cells for almost 24 hours a day,” says Lee.
The design of Aux is vibrant and colourful, often taking inspiration from the old posters and album covers that came up in the pieces, and features typefaces donated by Or Type and Signal type foundry.
The first issue was completed start to finish in under ten days, and was “raw and a little rough around the edges”, which Lee attributes to the urgency of the project. Since then, the team has been producing the zine on a weekly basis, and has so far distributed 30,000 copies around the UK. The deliveries go out at a similar time each week to create an element of structure, which Lee says is important when normal routines have been upended as they have been.
The zine takes the form of a music publication filled with interviews, tips and informative guides across seven sections: creativity, writing, music, wellbeing, rhythm, production, and culture. Each issue features a new poem or lyrics from one of the label’s ‘graduates’, and has so far included interviews with Sopranos actor Joe Ganascolli, comedian Tom Ward and musician Yazz Ahmed.
The content is determined by the music facilitators, many of whom had no experience in writing articles but made up for it with “a connection and relationship with the prisoners,” Lee says. “[The facilitators] know which artists they are inspired by, who they don’t like and who may be of benefit for them to discover.”
The direction of the zine is also informed by Lee’s experience of teaching graphic design inside a prison, an initiative proposed by Armani, where she covered the basics of typography, logo design, advertising and marketing, poster work and album artwork.
“Even though I was ripped for my flared jeans (apparently in some clubs there are signs on the door banning entry of ‘bootcuts’) and the nicest comment I received in three months was ‘you’re not that shit at this’, it was deeply rewarding and this first hand experience helped me greatly when it came to designing the zine,” Lee reflects.
The zine also comes with a CD, which Lee says functions like a podcast by offering a summary of each section and a selection of tracks to work with. Creating an audio accompaniment to the zine seeks to address varying literacy rates among prisoners, and is designed to help improve literacy skills by allowing people to read along while listening.
Aux seems to be a resounding success: even after restrictions are lifted in prisons, the team plans to continue producing the zine once or twice per month, and Aux has been well received among readers according to Armani. Many have even shown interest in learning how to play guitar, something InHouse has been able to respond to with acoustic guitars donated by Fender.
“It’s been incredibly positive, but that only begins to tell part of the story,” he says. Armani is keen to point out the difference between the public lockdown and the kind seen in prisons (“one measure is protection driven the other one is punishment driven”), which influences the role and importance of the zine.
“Aux doesn’t just help create the safe and enabling environment for prisoners to engage with the magazine, increase literacy or develop a technical skill, it also serves to convey far more powerful messages. How do we operate in a society that is becoming more and more contactless? By creating more and more human responses,” Armani says.
“Aux magazine is carefully and beautifully designed because we want to convey a value and significance to every reader that picks up a copy. If we want to see real change we need to start doing things differently, and Aux magazine is doing just that.”
The zine taps into Armani’s belief that creativity is a powerful healing mechanism. “The creative process is one that is good for the soul, good for the mind, it’s good for our wellbeing,” he says, adding that it can “inspire others to reflect, engage and change”.
“Without the consistent opportunity to nurture creativity, emotions like anger, frustration, anxiety and uncertainty are channelled into more unhealthy coping mechanisms,” Armani says. “Creativity heals.”