The impact of arts interventions in the Scottish criminal justice system has been well documented in recent years, with previous work undertaken by Creative Scotland in collaboration with Scottish Prison Service (SPS) highlighting the benefits. This resulted in a Guide for artists working in prisons, written by Jess Thorpe, which was created to help artists better understand this environment.
In a foreword to the Guide, Colin McConnell Chief Executive of Scottish Prison Service, said: “Our success in progressing arts in custody with our partners Creative Scotland, learning providers and third sector organisations, has continuously demonstrated the benefits of this activity in stimulating engagement and motivating formerly reluctant learners to build confidence and self-belief, stimulating interest in wider educational initiatives.”
In the Guide itself, Jess noted the power and potential of art as a tool for engagement and the importance of art as an act of community. In the wider Culture Collective network, this has been reiterated by a number of artists working within prison contexts, who have been able to use their creative skills to help build bridges and encourage participation.
In the first of our Q&As focusing on work in prisons, sound artist Hector MacInnes, whose practice encompasses installation, interview, song, text and speculative design, discusses his Culture Collective residency working with people in the Highlands affected by the criminal justice system.
Can you tell me a little more about you and your practice?
I’m a sound artist, and I come from a music and performance background. But within that, I also do a bit of writing and work with technology. I’ve always been interested in how all kinds of different creative practices come from the Highlands and how they represent the Highlands, and how they interface with its sense of place.
One of the things that has been really interesting about the Culture Collective is that I’ve been overwhelmingly working with people that fall outside typical narratives about the Highlands. People within the criminal justice system, for example, are people that may be working through mental health issues, or have experience of homelessness, and there’s just no space for them in most characterisations of the Highlands. But I think one of the things that’s interesting is that a lot of the narratives that are actually trying to replace those views of the Highlands in the 21st century, still have no room for those people, because they are built around, maybe, a digital nomad lifestyle, or how you can have a good work life balance. It feels to me like that’s an ongoing thing that the Highlands is a long way from addressing.
How did you get involved with Highland Culture Collective and their Culture Collective project? Why is it something that you wanted to get involved with?
My partner and I had moved to Bristol, just literally three or four months before the pandemic started. And we had great plans to enjoy city life, and all of the things that aren’t available on Skye. And obviously, they all immediately became unavailable anywhere. So we had quite a strange experience for a couple of years down there. It was amazing in a lot of ways, and really affirming in a lot of ways, but also quite odd.
The Culture Collective opportunity felt like the right time to re-engage with a lot of issues back home that I felt had been amplified and exacerbated by the pandemic, and the job came with a lot of great stuff that was going to allow me to do that in a constructive way. Really simple things like being paid properly, and having a bit of security. You can’t move that far for a project that’s only six weeks worth of chaotic freelancing. So that actually played a huge part in it. And then also, looking at the scope of the Culture Collective as a whole and being able to work as a part of that was just really exciting.
When you applied to work with the Culture Collective, what was your primary focus originally?
The brief that I responded to was about working with people impacted by the criminal justice system. I was interested to see how that sat alongside the other briefs from the Highland Culture Collective, because in other Culture Collective areas we’d seen, there had been a geographical focus, not a thematic one. But the Highlands is such a vast area that I think that was one of the reasons why they had taken a different approach. There was a brief about people impacted by the criminal justice system, a brief about working with vulnerable women, about working with the elderly, about the effect that the pandemic had on Gaelic, and about coastal communities in the climate crisis. So it was just a really interesting mix. I hadn’t worked in a prison before and I hadn’t worked with justice as a primary focus before so one of the first and steepest learning curves was this fact that if you’re working with people impacted by the criminal justice system, then you are working with people who are impacted by mental health, and you’re working with people impacted by homelessness and poverty and addiction. And just a massive host of other things that all intersect around this.
Could you tell me a little about your work in prisons and what that involved?
One of the things that I was most excited about in applying for the job was the chance it offered to take an exploratory route into finding out what the actual project could be. During consultations before applying, and then during the interview process, they were interested in finding the right people, and then letting them figure out what the right thing to do was, rather than expecting someone to come along with a complete package beforehand. And that was invaluable, because I went into working in the prison with a host of notions that I was quickly disabused of. Part of what I think of as the co-creation that went into the project was the time spent with the first two groups of prisoners that I worked with, and what they responded to. And the staff that I was working with in the prison as well, what I could learn from them about what was going to work and what wasn’t.
In the first couple of months, we did a lot of different things. I was bringing different things in every day, working with different themes, trying to decide where I felt my practice sat, in terms of what was going to work well, and what I felt was an appropriate attitude to have in terms of what everyone was getting out of it. So we made bits of radio, we made bits of field recording, we did little bits of programming and stuff like that, and settled on working with improvisation. What that became was an iPad improvisers’ orchestra. We were working with iPad interfaces that we were designing as we went. I’d work with a particular group of prisoners for around eight weeks at a time, and they would get to a certain point with their design process, and then the next group would pick up where they left off and develop it in different ways. So it was an ongoing thing, and quite a fun way of working.
What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt from working in prisons?
The main change I felt in how I was working was that, obviously when you’re going into work in a prison, the people that you’re working with, almost every aspect of their lives is outcome based, or is designed around outcomes. They’re in there for a particular reason that they have to address, and every minute of their day is intensely timetabled, even if it’s long stretches of nothing, it’s still very specific long stretches of nothing. And the language around that is obviously focused very much on rehabilitation, and then breaking this broad outcome of rehabilitation down into smaller outcomes and breaking those outcomes into smaller outcomes. I think one of the things that happened in the first weeks working with the prison was that I became acutely aware that I was thinking about my work with them in that way, because that was the language that was surrounding me. I was thinking about what I was going to do with them each week, in terms of what the outcomes for them might be, because I was being asked about that a lot. And there was a sort of realisation, which actually came from talking about it with the staff, interestingly enough, that one of the things that the length of my project offered was the ability to not think about it that way.
I started actually just talking about the role of what I was doing in the prison more in terms of what I understood to be their basic rights, rather than particularly what they were going to get out of it. Incarceration at a very basic level is talked about as a limit on your freedom, but everyone still has a right to food, and a right to shelter, and a right to health. It felt much more straightforward to me to see creative practice as one of those basic things that incarcerated people shouldn’t be deprived of.
I did get some very interesting and very encouraging feedback from particular people – social workers, or other members of staff, who felt that there was a lot of positive impact, and that some individuals might be much easier to talk to in the hour or two after they’d been in a Culture Collective session. That’s always lovely to hear, but it felt to me as if the more I tried to design things around that, the less likely that would be to happen. And that’s one of the reasons why I continued to work with improvisation because one of the most productive things about it was that every session started from scratch. If someone was in a completely different mood one week to another week, it didn’t really matter. Or if something had happened to them since the last session that totally changed the dynamic, we were back to square one anyway so we could accommodate the change quite easily. There was never any kind of homework or pressure to record progress or whatever. Things like that, I tried to push to the back of my mind in order to just create a space for people to occupy together.
Why was this project so beneficial to people who face multiple barriers to accessing mainstream arts?
I would just reiterate that I think no matter how ill or poor or whatever situation someone is in, if anyone was seen to be left without access to food, or without access to shelter, that would be rightly perceived as cruel. And I think that for people to be left with no access to the part of their beings that is present in a communal creative situation is cruel for essentially the same reasons.
Have you had any feedback from participants which suggests the work has been beneficial?
I didn’t ask them specific questions very often. But I think the most important feedback for me is that people came back the second week. Whenever you tell people you’re doing workshops in a prison there’s a running joke that you’ve got a captive audience, but that’s not actually true at all. They absolutely do not have to come to the workshops, and you’re working with people who have a lot going on in their lives, a lot of other things that they have to be thinking about, and a lot of other things they need to be dealing with. And it would be the easiest thing in the world, and very understandable, for someone in a prison to just sack it off, and not go along to something that you don’t have to do. Some people didn’t; some people came along for a couple of weeks and decided they didn’t like it. But what you take from that is the fact that when people do come back, that’s just really great feedback. That’s the single most important bit of feedback.
I think things that made people reconnect with their lives, the meaning of their lives outside the jail, was always really important. The way that the participants made music and the way that they experienced making music, and listening to music, immediately connected them to other parts of their lives, or experiences and memories in which they weren’t defined by their incarceration.
What are some of the challenges involved with doing arts-based work in prisons?
It’s not an easy role to undertake, in ways that I encountered quite slowly. There’s a lot of practical stuff. Everything is difficult in a prison. You can’t just show up with your bag full of stuff. If you want to take a box of pens in or a little keyboard, or a microphone, all of this stuff has to be signed off for very understandable reasons a couple of weeks in advance and everything needs to be very planned. So a lot of that is just very logistically intense compared to a lot of workshops in other situations where you can kind of rock up and crack on.
But I actually think that the bigger challenges for me were the ongoing interpersonal challenges that it presents. The people in the workshops that I was doing have a lot of things going on in their lives that I would never find out about, and it would probably be unproductive if I did find out about them. But what that means is that somebody’s response to particular things within a workshop might be very unpredictable, or up and down. And I obviously only get to see them for this little two hour window one week, and then a two hour window in another week, whereas in lots of other workshop situations there might be an understanding of what had gone on since you last saw them, or some sort of interface where you saw them or communicated with them during the week, so that you could prepare or knew what to expect somehow. All of that stuff is behind a veil, you walk into the room to do the workshop and then a group of guys comes into the room. And by and large, it’ll be the same guys that were there last week, but not necessarily, and somebody will just disappear without any kind of explanation. And someone else might appear without any explanation, or someone that was really into it one week might be just having a terrible time the next week. Having to be ready to accommodate all of that for me, was the specific thing that made it harder, or that was the thing that I had to get used to compared to working in other contexts.
Can you see yourself continuing to do this kind of work in prisons? And what are your hopes for the future of the project?
Yeah, I would absolutely love to. The whole project was something that kind of ended up getting built from scratch because I wanted to go back as far as possible with the groups that I was working with, so that we weren’t even particularly improvising with musical instruments. I think maybe the first time I came in, the interfaces looked like a keyboard, or they looked like a drum machine or something like that. And the longer we went on, the more we sort of departed from that and wanted the participants to have done as much of the design work as possible in terms of how it looked and how it felt and how it sounded. I would really like to see that get deployed somehow away from me, not because I don’t want to do it, but it would be great to see what someone else could do with it and what other groups of prisoners could do with other perspectives.
I found working in the prison really, actually, kind of life affirming, which is maybe not the first word someone might think would come to you but it was. I think also though, one of the other things that we found ourselves doing, was designing gaps into the project. So that we could get a little bit of time, or work with other groups, to readjust to the sort of things that you’ve been having to think about working in the prison. I’m simultaneously enjoying a pause, but would definitely like to see what we started in Inverness continue somehow.