• Shellie Morris performing at the National Indigenous Music Awards (NITV)Source: NITV
Award-winning singer Shellie Morris has lent her songwriting skills to the documentary musical ‘Prison Songs’ which shows the inmates of Darwin’s Berrimah Prison in a completely new light.
Karina Marlow

30 Aug 2016 - 5:48 PM  UPDATED 30 Aug 2016 - 5:48 PM

“There’s a lot of humour in there, there’s a lot of characters and funny conversations. Amazing enough they’ve got some stories to tell.”

Shellie Morris describes the old Berrimah prison, which was finally shut down in late 2014, as “very overcrowded. Obviously the first time it was very overwhelming and there were certain areas that I wouldn’t go.”

However, it was the people that she met while visiting the prison for over a decade to run music workshops that made such a dramatic impression on her. When asked whether there was a particular story that stood out to her, she responded “I think they all resonated with me, some days I just went home and cried.”

Shellie points to music as “empowering people to have a voice.” Having worked in over fifty Indigenous communities to help Indigenous Australians share their voices and stories through song, Shellie Morris was an obvious choice to work on the documentary musical project.

As part of ‘Prison Songs’ Shelley was invited to partner with Casey Bennetto, the composer of the musical ‘Keating!’ in order to turn the words of the inmates into song.

The duo started with transcripts of the crew’s interviews with the inmates and went from there.

Shellie explained that writing the songs wasn’t hard but it was a challenging process. From the interviews the team choose “themes such as family violence, alcohol and the conflict between white man’s law and Indigenous law and then different music styles: country, rock and hip-hop.”

“The challenging bit was taking it back to the inmates and getting their approval.”

The inmates, who then performed the songs for the documentary, were encouraged to change the final lyrics to suit their own style and expression and some emerging hip-hip artists were found in inmates Max and Dale.

While Shellie was initially nervous at the reception of the songs, they were a hit with the inmates. “They really loved the grog song,” she told NITV.

When the stories of the inmates were transformed into a theatre production for last year’s Darwin Festival Shellie was able to catch up with many of the former inmates to get their permission.

“I went back in ‘cos we wanted to make a theatre show. I said Ernie Dingo’s playing you Phil and he said ‘Yeah, he can do whatever he likes.’”

One of the former inmates she met through making ‘Prison Songs’ was employed to work at the Darwin production and is now running a program in Groote Eylandt and is looking forward to becoming a new dad. However, it is not just the lives of the some of the inmates that have been impacted. 

“I just believe that my life has changed during that project and my perspective on incarceration rates and the current situation in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.”

'Prison Songs' premiers at 9.30pm on Wednesday 31st August on NITV.