Downview Prison in Sutton, England, is home to around 250 women of various ages, nationalities and backgrounds.
Their crimes range from manslaughter to sexual assault to burglary. Forty per cent of the inmates were convicted of drug importation, many of them are foreign nationals from all parts of the world.
In the film we meet a number of prisoners and hear
their stories. Mary has spent most of the last twenty years in
prison, mainly for drugs offences. The last time she was
released, she couldn’t cope with life on the outside and committed two
robberies in order to be caught and sent back to prison. Maggie
is an Irish traveller with a history of crack cocaine addiction and
burglary. Celine and Natasha are French sisters, each serving 18
year sentences after being caught at Heathrow with a suitcase full of
ecstasy. Theresa stabbed her neighbour to death after suffering
years of noise and harassment.
Although these women are very different, many of
the inmates at Downview have something in common – most of them have
suffered abuse and violence at the hands of men, sometimes as
children. Another common theme is that many of the women have
lost their own children because of coming to prison.
Rather than telling us about their lives in a conventional documentary style, the women sing about their lives in a variety of styles ranging from hip hop to lullaby.
As well as songs, there are also filmed interviews
with the women and actuality scenes of prison life.
Songbirds is the first documentary musical to be
made in a women’s prison and follows on from Century’s BAFTA
award-winning Feltham Sings.