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 second of our Q&As focusing on work in prisons, performance maker and researcher Indra Wilson discusses their time with the Toonspeak Culture Collective project, and their community practice, which uses feminist and queer methodologies to investigate the public health sector, the justice system, art and activism.
Can you tell me a little more about you and your practice?
I am a theatre maker and community-based artist, and I work mainly in prison contexts and recovery contexts too. But I also work with everyone I possibly can work with. And I often say that a massive part of my practice is just meeting people where they are today and in that moment.
How did you get involved with Toonspeak and their Culture Collective project? Why is it something that you wanted to get involved with?
So I started working with Toonspeak two years ago as an assistant on their projects. And I was working with a dance artist mainly, and a few other artists. And then I became a lead artist and got really interested in working within a dance context. I was doing quite a lot of work with people that didn’t have English as their first language, and doing drama and dance. And now with Toonspeak, I’m working with toddlers which is such a different community than what I’m used to working with. Also recently, I just finished working with Inverclyde Culture Collective in collaboration with the Beacon and Your Voice recovery group.
I had just graduated from arts training and as soon as I heard about the Culture Collective programme, and especially what Toonspeak was doing with it, it just felt like an incredible opportunity to be with a collective of artists. Not only to learn from each other but to build confidence out of COVID. Although I trained for four years in how to work within a community, I actually hadn’t done it for two years, because COVID had happened. So I was quite anxious going into facilitation, and if I knew how to do it without Zoom. The Culture Collective just felt like a really great support network, and provided opportunities to actually facilitate and go and see other work. It felt like a luxury as an artist to have a collective that totally understood that artists need to see other people’s work and need to also be paid for that as well, because it’s a massive part of growing your own artistic practice.
Prior to your work with Toonspeak, you undertook some arts-based work in prisons. Could you tell me a little about that work and what it involved?
I first got into work within prison contexts because I did a module at uni with Jess Thorpe who runs an organisation called Glass Performance, that has so many different projects within Polmont Prison, but also loads of different prisons around Scotland. And my main focus at the time was female and queer spaces within prison and asking, what does that look like, especially during COVID? I was really fascinated to have conversations with incarcerated people who menstruate to talk about how COVID had affected that. And also reproductive rights within Scotland and within the prison service. So a massive part of that module was me just figuring out when I graduate, how I could use theatre and dance and other creative tools to have that conversation, and to actively try and make change as well, because it’s a hard conversation to have even without a prison setting. And then you go within a prison setting, and it feels a lot more anxious to talk about that.
Once I graduated, Jess brought me into a project called Women Talk, which was a radio show, created with mainly the female and trans community within Polmont. How that project worked was me and an artist called Mona Keeling would go in every Thursday. And the first part of the project was us trying to convince people why they should make a radio show. Then we started to get more participants, and we basically just asked them, what do you want to talk about? And what can we as a group do within this prison? So they would write their own segments, and it could be absolutely anything, like we had one participant write about the inspiration of Billie Eilish and how incredible Billie Eilish is. And then we went on to talk about things like the importance of smear tests within a prison, and what menopause looks like within a prison context.
We’d write these segments, we’d edit them together and we would make a radio show. And then that radio show was played throughout the whole of the prison. So not just the wing for the female and trans community, but to every staff member, absolutely everyone. And it just felt like such an important project to do because women in the trans community are within a minority community. And so it just felt so important to give the mic to this community and say, tell us what you want us to hear. Within that project, we even interviewed the Governor and some of the participants grilled him in a very nice and articulate way, about changes within Polmont. And as a result of that, those changes were made. So it’s just been such a beautiful project to be a part of.
What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learnt from working in prisons?
I think there is a total misrepresentation of people who are in the justice system. For example, because me and Mona Keeling and Jess Thorpe have a very feminist practice, the whole of this project was born out of this feminist and queer methodology of how can we use queer and female voices to make change? And I think sometimes there is an assumption that people within the prison system will not understand feminism or not understand queerness and actually, I’ve experienced the total opposite. Within this project, it has just been such a warm space to be able to talk about and really go into the complexities of identity and how we see AFAB [assigned female at birth] spaces, especially within prison. So I definitely think there’s a lack of understanding of how to hold safe queer spaces within Scottish prisons. And I think as well, all of the people who I’ve met have been so articulate of exactly what they want their voices to say. It comes back to that class stereotype of who we see in our prisons and I invite everyone to try and do a lot more understanding of what makes the Scottish prison system. And how does someone get to a place in their life where they have committed a crime?
Why are projects like this so beneficial to people who face multiple barriers to accessing mainstream arts?
I think it’s important, because I think sometimes art can be seen as maybe a “soft option”, or an easy option, or just something to entertain. Obviously, there is a lot of fun in drama. But actually, it takes so much bravery to stand up on a stage and perform, or to record a piece of text that you’ve written, and say, this is something I’m passionate about. It takes so much vulnerability and strength to be able to do that. And I think as well, it just gives someone an identity, which is more than just their prison number. Quite a lot of times within a prison context, someone will lose their first name; they will be referred to as their last name, or their prison number. And within these projects, there is an absolute beauty and a strength of hearing someone be able to call themselves an artist and a performer and a creator, instead of referring to themselves as a prisoner, or an incarcerated person, because they are so much more than that. And I think if the goal is to reform someone, you cannot trap them with the identity of just being something you did in the past – you have to give them hope and a projection of the future as well.
Have you had any feedback from participants which suggests the work has been beneficial?
We did quite a lot of evaluations and feedback sessions and all of the participants often would say that if it had been a hard week, they knew they could just come and just sit and be in a room of people who were going to talk about anything but being in a prison. Even if they were just making a playlist of Billie Eilish songs that they like, it was just a reminder of what they like, instead of where they were. One of the best reflections for me personally, is that we had this participant who identified as a trans man, and he reflected that this was the first time that he felt safe enough to write about that experience, and also he just felt incredibly seen within the project. It just felt like an incredible moment to really highlight the importance of this project and the fact that this participant could be authentically himself for an hour in a room.
What are your hopes for the future of work like this that happens in prisons?
My absolute desire is that it never stops. I think when it comes to arts funding, we quite often focus on projects that have the biggest outreach, the biggest number of participants, and art within prison contexts, you’re not going to have a massive list of participants, because of the small nature of the community. However, they have such lasting effects. And I just think that my desires would be more funding and more artists also to go in and see that people want to be creative. It’s so natural in humans to be creative.
What would you say to artists that are maybe thinking about getting involved in this kind of work? Is there anything that you’d encourage them to do?
I would say listen to their gut, and try to reach out to other artists who are working within the justice system. But yeah, just talk to other artists that go in there. And just do the work and listen to that interest in wanting to do it. Also, the RCS do have quite a lot of workshops on art in prison contexts, and I do recommend that you learn a little bit about the Scottish justice system and understand the context that you’re about to go into.
Can you see yourself continuing to do this kind of work?
100%. It can be difficult. I’ve definitely had days where I’ve walked away from the prison and I have that moment of like, I get to leave this place, and the participants don’t. But I think that’s often been the fire to keep on continuing projects like this. It’s the fact that I get to go home. And I think a lot of people, when COVID was happening, constantly said, now I understand what it’s like to be in prison, but actually there was so much freedom. The fact that you had decorated the flat that you lived in, which is such a big privilege that incarcerated people do not have. The fact that you could, if you are menstruating, pick the period products you want to use. That is not a luxury that prisoners have. So I think there’s definitely a lot of misunderstanding because you do give up a lot of rights and very questionable rights as well, when you have been incarcerated.