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Prison arts in Scotland – by Kate Davey

Prison arts in Scotland – by Kate Davey

On 11th May, I travelled to Glasgow in preparation for the Scottish Prison Arts Network (SPAN): Skill Share Session and Glasgow Museums: Insight Café, which were taking place the following day.  On the 11th itself I visited Citizens Theatre, the principal producing theatre in the west of Scotland. Additionally, the theatre has a fantastic learning department which is committed to enhancing the lives of all kinds of people in Glasgow and beyond.

When I arrived I met Elly Goodman, Citizen Theatre’s Community Drama Artist. Elly was leading a Street Cones rehearsal in preparation for their performance at the Insight Café on the 12th May. Street Cones is an inspiring organisation, which was set up by people with experience of the Criminal Justice System with the aim of preventing young people going down the wrong pathways into crime, substance misuse and bad decision making. Their performance at the Insight Café was a rehearsed reading, but it seemed to me that all of the actors were very competent without the script as well. The performance combined the stories of each individual actor in monologues, short scenes and music. The fact that these men are not simply actors but have all really experienced what they are performing made it a powerful piece.

The Street Cones group has changed over the past year with people coming and going as they progress and move into paid employment and college courses – there really are some fantastic success stories – so the piece they have been working on has been continuously morphing to incorporate the stories of the men as they come and go. The men involved in the group come from a real variety of backgrounds with different experiences of the prison system; from one member who ended up in prison for the first time at the age of 55, to another who had been in and out of prison for most of his life.

In the afternoon, Elly and I – along with Elly’s colleagues Angela and Carly – headed to a local women’s centre, where we were going to be facilitating a journalism and magazine workshop. Citizens Theatre has been working with the centre for a long time, providing theatre drop-ins and workshops and organising plays and performances. This project, which sees the women decide on content and design for a bi-annual magazine about the centre and all it has to offer has been running for about a month and is funded by Comic Relief. We sat in the garden as it was such a beautiful day and worked with the women on deciding on content, transcribing interviews and writing articles.

The group felt very safe, and the women were able to share their life stories, interests and passions in the form of magazine articles and one-to-one interviews. The magazine aims to challenge some of the myths that surround the centre, and provide the women who use the centre, as well as those who might use it in the future, with practical advice and information on the services available.

The next day I headed to St Mungo’s Museum in the necropolis area of Glasgow for the SPAN Skill Share event and Glasgow Museums: Insight Café. The day started with a presentation from students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland who had recently undertaken placements in Scottish prisons as part of their degree. The students spoke about what they had learned from the practical module, and recited a phrase they said epitomised their experience: “You are a group of students working with another group of students.” They read a poem authored by one of the participants of their project, and performed a song they had written with one of the groups.

The students’ presentation was followed by a talk from Ryan Dobbins, the Learning Centre Manager at HMP Shotts. Ryan spoke about the benefits of having students on placement in prisons, bringing a new perspective and fresh ideas. He outlined the positives of having new and different skills in the department, but also noted that there were a lot of things for students to take into consideration before deciding to undertake a project in a prison setting.

Ryan passed over to Inigo Garrido in the audience who spoke about his involvement in the creation and development of STIR Magazine in Shotts. The STIR group produces a creative arts magazine and formal publications like artists’ guides to working in prison. They also offer strategic marketing assistance to organisations like the Prison Inspectorate, providing real-life professional experience for the participants involved.

The day involved a fair amount of talk about the future of arts in criminal justice in Scotland – following the retraction of a special Creative Scotland funding stream reserved solely for arts and criminal justice projects. The Scottish Prison System (SPS) is a great supporter of the work of many of the arts organisations working in prison settings, but it is difficult without match funding from Creative Scotland.

Jess Thorpe, Lecturer in Arts in Social Justice at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, asked if we are lighting a fire and then extinguishing it, with reference to both the student placements offered by the Conservatoire, and prisoners taking up arts opportunities. Funding limitations mean that opportunities to work in the sector are few and far between, restricting the professional journey those wanting to work in the sector are able to take.

In an attempt to overcome the competitiveness of securing funding, SPAN is considering establishing an arts consortium to reflect the geography of prisons in Scotland.  This would mean working with a small group of arts organisations across Scotland to secure larger amounts of funding that could be distributed between the organisations.

Following a brief discussion about funding and the future of the arts we had a talk from Denise Russell, a prison officer from HMP Greenock who is currently on secondment to Tomorrow’s Women, a Third Sector organisation supporting women who have come out of prison, and Carol Laula, an arts practitioner who has taken part in the SPAN mentoring scheme. It was useful to hear about SPAN’s experience of running a professional mentoring scheme, which is very similar to the one we run at the National Alliance for Arts in Criminal Justice.

After lunch, the Insight Café part of the event began. This was hosted primarily by Glasgow Open Museum which does a lot of outreach work with people who are unable to physically attend the museums. In this section, we saw Street Cones’ performance – which was inspiring – and heard from various museum professionals about specific projects and working with prisoners and prisons more generally.

Overall, the two days I spent in Glasgow were inspiring and insightful. It was amazing to see what a thriving prison arts sector there is in Glasgow – and Scotland more widely. I think the similarities between SPAN and the NAACJ mean we can learn a lot from each other’s work, in turn strengthening and supporting the sector UK-wide.


Conversations, HMP Stafford, Image courtesy of the Koestler Trust