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The arts magazine creating a stir behind bars

"ONE of the feedback cards we put in the magazine came back with 'no comment' written on it", says Gareth, one of the long-term inmates at HMP Shotts.

"We fell about laughing."

Seeing my blank look, he explains: What other response would you expect when you give a career criminal a comment card? It's a prison joke, and a good one.

At the recent Herald Society Awards 2013 gala ceremony in Glasgow, there was one group of winners who could not collect their trophy.

The editorial board of Stir, the prison-based arts magazine, is based at Shotts, the Lanarkshire jail for long-term prisoners. None is serving less than four years.

This week, the award was presented to core members by one of our judging panel, Mary Hepburn, in the prison's education centre, managed along with six others by New College Lanarkshire.

The project was deemed the most innovative and successful education project entered in our annual awards. Working across the prisons, funded by the Big Lottery and Creative Scotland, the college has set up an editorial board who sift and select artwork and creative writing contributed from all the prisons.

Originally it was seen by other prisoners as only for those in Shotts, and by women prisoners in HMP Cornton Vale as only for men. But it has taken off.

With issue six about to be published, Stir is an undoubted success, and while issue one printed almost everything submitted, now only a third of the work submitted can be published in the main magazine, although everything sent in is published somewhere.

It gives prisoners meaningful educational activity and those involved in the magazine's production gain real skills. Others gain confidence, as lifer Dean points out.

"Art can offer prisoners the opportunity for self-expression and discovery in a positive manner", he says.

"That can build self confidence and foster feelings of achievement and worth."

While any benefit to society must be long term for the Shotts prisoners, at least the relative lack of turnover gives the magazine stability.

Meanwhile other prisons involved with Stir have their own Stir coordinators and are often working with prisoners who will return much sooner to society.

The kind of benefits Dean suggests Stir produces can make a real difference in the outside world, it is argued.

And even long-term prisoners will be released one day.

It has certainly given William Sinclair, Stir's most impressive graduate so far, a new direction.

Serving a five-year sentence in Shotts he became interested in art and learned to paint in the prison.

Now he runs art workshops in Maryhill in Glasgow to encourage ex-offenders to use art as a focus when they are released.

The Evolved project, also supported by Creative Scotland, has been working with prisoners for two years.

Not all prisoners are so ready to embrace their artistic side, of course. Some of those who dismissed the magazine at the outset now read its articles about modern art, the poetry of fellow prisoners and look at the artwork - but hidden inside their tabloid newspaper.

Themes to each issue, such as sport and the environment, help avoid the traditional pitfalls of prison writing, Dean points out.

"We don't want the old traditional stuff you see in a lot of prison magazines - constant self pity, bashing your head against the wall. We want to do something more positive."

Prisoners do not communicate directly with those in other jails but through co-ordinators.

Yet they plainly gain an insight into those elsewhere in the prison estate.

Inmates at HMP Dumfries contribute little writing but hugely impressive artworks, it seems.

Inigo Garrido, a worker who co-ordinates Stir at Shotts, says the focus on art can benefit those who are less literate.

Kirsten Sams, offender learning manager at New College Lanarkshire, says the Scottish Prison Service should be praised for encouraging the scheme.

"It is positive that they support this kind of prison education," she says. "Getting a job is important but all sorts of skills are valuable."

In fact prison chiefs want more space allocated to the arts, according to the head of the SPS creating opportunties unit's James King.

"We know its value as a route into learning," he explains.

And there are other positives.

Ian, another member of the Stir editorial board, says: "Shotts is traditionally a violent place, although it has calmed down. But you are still in a prison and everybody is on edge.

"Art is therapeutic for a lot of people, beyond the academic achievement. It can bring a bit of joy to a crazy, uneasy place."

For more information see stirmagazine.org

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