Bus bought for £1 revamped by Edinburgh prisoners as mobile community centre with kitchen, salon and music suite

A standard First Bus will soon begin a new life as a mobile community outreach centre complete with kitchen, hairdressing salon, music editing suite and support station for visitors to ask for advice.

By Elsa Maishman
Thursday, 3rd October 2019, 7:00 am
Updated Thursday, 3rd October 2019, 8:00 am
Jordan Butler and Linda Bendle of Heavy Sound. Picture: Neil Hanna

Social Enterprise Heavy Sound CIC, which bought the bus for £1, has worked with prisoners at HMP Edinburgh since January to strip and re-fit the bus, which will be ready next month to leave the prison and begin visiting communities with higher levels of inequality, poverty or crime.

The project was engineered by Managing Director of Heavy Sounds Linda Bendle, inspired by her own experience of trying and failing to access services for herself and family members.

“The idea is to find a way to get all the necessary services and information together in one place and take it to communities which struggle around Edinburgh,” said Ms Bendle.

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“It’s a very different approach to doing things, we’ll just rock up with this great big musical bus with banging tunes and start cooking food and you can come aboard for a cup of tea, for advice, for anything.”

Around 12 male and female prisoners have so far worked on the bus.

Tony, 29, a former mechanic and landscaper, was ‘excited’ when he first saw it.

“It’s not just a project, it’s about achieving a goal, getting experience, and also giving something back,” he said.

“I recommend there should be a bus in every prison - it’s the best project I’ve seen here.”

Hugh, 61, who also worked on the bus, said: “It let us build experience, work together and give each other advice.

“It gets folk out of themselves, we could be sitting doing nothing but we were never bored doing this.”

Both Tony and Hugh, from Fife and Glasgow, would like similar outreach buses to visit their own communities.

Shirley, 35, designed the wraparound for the outside of the bus, which will feature clefs and musical notes.

The bus will have facilities to offer advice about housing, homelessness, employment, mental health support and addiction, among other things.

A music tech space at the back will hold DJ equipment, synthesisers, a drum machine and computers, providing all the equipment for visitors to learn how to DJ and perform rap, hip hop and other music.

Former prisoners at HMP Edinburgh who completed a hairdressing course will give haircuts, providing themselves with an income and offering ‘pay what you can’ treatments to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.

The bus will also be equipped with a kitchen and awning to extend the cooking space, and visitors will be able to learn how to cook staple dishes like soup, porridge, and pasta and rice dishes, and will be given the necessary ingredients from the bus.

Jordan Butler, the Stockbridge-born founder of Heavy Sound, had the idea for setting up the organisation at the age of 15.

“It would have made such a difference to me at that age,” said the 34-year-old, who fell into homelessness at 13.

The support on offer from the outreach bus will depend on lived experience mentors, like Mr Butler.

Heavy Sound also has plans to train former HMP Edinburgh prisoners to become mentors on the project.

“For us it’s all about the ones, creating positive life changes for one person at a time,” said Ms Bendle.

“It’s completely insane that people have to go to so many places to access so many different services at the moment.

“We’re not going to signpost you, we’re not going to close the door,” she said.

Heavy Sound will bring the bus to schools and communities around Edinburgh and East Lothian.

A lot of its work will be with young people, and Heavy Sound have tried to make the bus as ‘user-friendly’ as possible for them.

The display which used to show the destination of the bus will be repurposed to list what services are available.

There will also be a TV screen for presentations, and a desktop computer complete with printer and WiFi, to be used for ‘anything’, Ms Bendle said, including administration related to applying for services and filling in forms online.

The organisation hopes to convert more buses for outreach into other areas, including Dundee, Dumfries and Galloway and West Lothian.

“If anyone wants to donate a bus it would be welcome!” said Ms Bendle.

“There has been so much interest already that we’re already looking at doing more and creating more reach.”

Heavy Sound is also accepting donations towards the upkeep of the bus, from clothes to books to printer paper, and including cash for insurance, wages and other expenses.

A former HMP prisoner and HGV driver will be employed full-time by Heavy Sounds to drive the vehicle.

“It’s a unique project,” said David Abernethy, Governor of HMP Edinburgh.

“If you had asked [officials at the prison] about this ten years ago it would have been a definite no, it’s a really new idea.”

Working on the bus has been a positive experience for many prisoners, he said.

“Everyone who has worked on the bus has done so entirely voluntarily, because they believe in the project, and for the satisfaction of working on something that might help communities,” he said.

“The hope is to get people to a better place so they don’t come back. Everybody wins - the person in question, their partner, children, neighbours, and the whole community.”

The project has been supported by the STV Kiltwalk Appeal, the Scottish Prison Service, Violence Reduction Unit (VRU), European Social Fund, Edinburgh City Council and several local businesses.

Jim Gray of the VRU said: “It’s a really unique approach to service providing.

“The project has been a success so far and if that continues we will look at rolling out more buses in future.”