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Creative solutions to the problem of re-offending

Here is a strange thing.

Everyone agrees, every solitary piece of research confirms, that rehabilitating prisoners and avoiding re-offending is a win-win for them, for their families, for the taxpayer and for the safety and health of the wider community.

Yet when new initiatives are proposed to help bring about that happy state of affairs, there is no shortage of foaming around the mouths of commentators skilled at moving their lips before the brain is engaged. Just witness last week's furore over the suggestion of in-cell phone facilities for prisoners.

As a result, some of the very good work being undertaken within the Scottish Prison Service tends to go on under the radar.

The current chief executive of the SPS, Colin McConnell, is a man blessed with the conviction that prisons should not be penal warehouses but sanctions of last resort where the offenders need to be able to address their criminal behaviour and to be helped to find routes out of it.

He said all that and more in an important speech to Sacro at the back end of last year, reminding his audience that offenders are "part of their communities ... not a breed apart but the same as the rest of us with all the human frailties, temptations, responsibilities and opportunities to deal with . . . they are the stuff of human potential, not the detritus from societal shipwreck."

That potential will be explored in a number of very innovative ways over the next three years in a £750,000 programme funded by Creative Scotland lottery money which marries creative projects inside Scotland's prisons run by a range of arts organisations and practitioners with parallel initiatives in communities suffering from the impact of crime.

It builds on a pilot programme undertaken by Motherwell College two years ago in five of Scotland's prisons with partners as varied as Scottish Opera, the Citizens and Traverse Theatres, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the National Galleries of Scotland, and the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

The involvement of such high-profile participants implied both quality and commitment. And the programmes throughout the prisons, in collaboration with the permanent education teams, meant that the offenders were involved at every stage of every project, from building an opera from scratch at Shotts prison, to drama productions in Greenock, Barlinnie and the open prison estate. Professional artist- led programmes of self portraits in five jails were led by the National Galleries.

As SPS spokesman Tom Fox told me, "you might almost call it learning by stealth. A lot of people have had difficulties with the education system in the past, but the arts allowed them to get really enthused and involved in way which wouldn't have happened in a more traditional learning environment".

That's a view echoed by Joan Parr, who heads up Creative Scotland's education team, which has just fielded tenders for the new three-year programme. "Along with our partners, we're confident that they will result in positive change. We want to build on previous success and make the arts a permanent and common part of work that takes place in prisons and criminal justice settings all over Scotland. The new projects are positive and practical and will change lives for the better."

Yet maybe the last word should go to someone with what you might call an inside view of these proceedings. Most film fans will know Paul Brannigan as Robbie in The Angel's Share, the film role which brought him a Bafta.

But he grew up among gangland violence in a family with drug addiction problems, and himself became a repeat offender and finally an inmate at Polmont Young Offenders Institution.

He arrived there a scared lad just turned 17. But he got into an art class. "Some of the paintings were outstanding and truly inspirational, young dads working for months on a piece of art to give their children," he recalls. He went from there to a rehabilitation unit which also ran arts-based classes – when he first got in front of a camera.

"Art in prison is something that should be taken seriously as it can be life-changing," he says now. "Sometimes you need to give people a chance and if they want to make a change this is the perfect environment to nurture and encourage individuals to find that spark inside."

Paul found that spark, found a purpose, found a new life. He's special. But, importantly, he's not unique.

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