Inspiration takes to the stage

6th August 2010 at 01:00
Motherwell College plays a leading role in prison education across Scotland, including a liberating new arts project

There are a few more knife-scars on cheeks and wrinkles on foreheads. But the learners would look familiar to any teacher or lecturer. They have the same watchful eyes, uncertainty and eagerness to please as many other students. But this isn't a college and these aren't underprivileged kids. The barred windows and white-shirted guards give it away. This is Barlinnie.

A creative session is in progress, led by visitors from the Citizens Theatre and organised by Motherwell College, the main provider of learning and skills in Scotland's prisons. "We have 100 staff in nine of the 13 public-sector prisons," says Kirsten Sams, who manages the service across the country. "This is a new type of arts-led learning."

Ten prisoners have opted to take part in Inspiring Change, a project funded by the Scottish Arts Council. They are being prompted by Martin Travers, head of Citizens Learning, to flesh out the idea for a musical drama that the learners will create, write, stage and perform to an audience of inmates, staff, family, friends and invited guests.

"We've a lot to do in six weeks," he tells them. "So this guy is just out of prison and standing on a railway platform, wondering where to go. As a group, we're going to create what he's doing, who he meets and anything else that happens to him."

First his name. "John Paul" is popular with some, but others prefer "Big Billy". They settle on "Roscoe".

"Now we need to know more about him," says Citizens director Elly Goodman. "Is he married or single? Is he with somebody? Is he gay?"

"He's no gay."

"He's happily married."

"His bird was jumpin aboot when he was daein his time."

"He fell in love wi a lassie but she's in Cornton Vale."

"We've plenty of ideas there," Martin says. "Now what does he do? Does he have a trade?"

"He wanted to be a fitba player but he got . messed up." He smiles. "I didnae want to say the f-word."

"Aye, he started on drugs and drink and ended up in jail."

"How old is he? What does he look like? What kind of music does he enjoy?" The experts help the group to build a rounded central character, while creative writing lecturer Kate Hendry, who has taught in prisons for 10 years, takes time out to talk about what education and the arts can achieve.

"They help keep people human," she says. "That's important because crime is about not empathising with victims, not realising they're human too. The arts get people in touch with their own feelings - both good and bad - and help you realise other people have feelings too.

"For most of the time in here, prisoners are having to be someone else, having to defend their own patch, literally and emotionally. A project like this allows them to be themselves, gets them working together and gives them a feeling of achievement that most have never had from education. It helps them survive in a harmful place."

Providing education in prisons is a huge challenge, says Ms Sams, not least because there is little political will or popular mandate for making it work. "Like every other public-sector organisation, the prison service is facing cuts," she says. "They have to feed prisoners and make sure their basic needs are met, so it is going to be a struggle to keep education going."

But figures released earlier this year by the Scottish Prison Service showed that half of male prisoners attending education classes in Scotland are functionally illiterate. The proportion for the prison population as a whole is likely to be higher.

"There are no figures for that," says Ms Sams. "But if you ask people who work in prisons, they'll tell you it could be 70 per cent or more."

Education is popular among inmates, with 270 of the 900 eligible at Barlinnie - excluding the 500 on remand - attending classes.

"There's a perception out there that prisoners shouldn't be getting education opportunities, because of the crimes they've committed," she says. "I can understand victims of crime feeling like that. But it makes sense to try to return offenders to the community as changed people, with a different outlook on life, a better chance of building a positive future."

This is about small steps, says teacher and doctoral student Kirstin Anderson. "Most of these guys did not have a good experience of school. The arts are a way into education for people like that because they're enjoyable and anyone can get involved.

"What amazes me is how a good experience of learning can happen for the first time in a prison. We need to be realistic, but education - and the arts in particular - can make a difference to offenders' lives and the lives of the people around them."

Back in the theatre group, participants on a coffee break in their two- hour session offer their thoughts on education and the arts.

"When you're thinking about this, you're not thinking about the problems and the fighting. It's an accomplishment when you've got it done."

"You're learning stuff but it disnae feel like it. Everybody takes part and the time flies."

"You're getting to use your brains."


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