Claire Coia, Open Museum curator, Johnny Steele author and ex-BSU inmate, Mik Niven co-creator of display and recent ex-Barlinnie inmate and art therapist Joyce Laing

Exhibition explores life in special unit for violent prisoners

Nicola Sullivan, 09.05.2017
Glasgow Museums' project involved inmates at HMP Barlinnie
An exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum reveals what life was like in the Barlinnie Special Unit – an area of HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow that was once reserved for Scotland’s most violent and uncontrollable prisoners.

Barlinnie Special Unit: A Way Out of a Dark Time features a small selection of artworks that were created in the unit, which opened at the prison in 1973 and was operational for 21 years. Also on display are a number of photographs donated to Glasgow Museums by Joyce Laing, who worked as an art therapist at the unit, which became known as the most significant experiment in Scottish penal law, as it replaced the established punishment ethos of prisons with a therapeutic model.

“The real purpose of this display isn’t that art is exciting for prisoners,” says Laing. “The whole point of allowing individuals to express their creativity is that by looking at what the person produces we can learn a lot about them. It was never as prescriptive as [saying] ‘this is how you draw’. We were enabling the guys to discover a well of creativity inside them, and with the help of the staff at the unit to relook at themselves through the art they created.”

Author and ex inmate Johnny Steele said: “No other prison in Scotland would take me. You’ve got to bear in mind in all those years of fighting, being locked up and rioting you’ve got a coat of armour as a way of surviving. In the special unit, all the armour was off, and through time chip, chip, chipping it a wee bit.

“A lot of the guys who went in there and came out didn’t go back into prison. The unit played a key role in changing the way we tried to reintegrate people onto the community and it’s still seen today.”

Prisoners involved with HMP Barlinnie’s radio station Barbed Wireless using archive material on the unit from Glasgow Museums to create content for  programmes. Training was provided in object handling, conservation, research and interpretation. Participants can also put their work towards a qualification in communication and creating digital content.

Claire Coia, the curator for Open Museum, Glasgow Museums’ community outreach team, said: “The students’ [prisoners] enthusiasm, insights and interview skills have revealed new knowledge about this important group of works. Together we have curated the exhibition, written the interpretative text and helped them towards a recognised qualification. Researching objects from the past has also provided a chance to reflect on their own experiences of the criminal justice system and new opportunities going forward.”

Barlinnie Special Unit: A Way Out of a Dark Time will be on display in the community exhibition space at Kelvingrove Museum until 3 June.