AS a child growing up in the west of Scotland during the 1970s, there was no escaping lurid headlines about "The Special Unit". You'd have to have been living on the moon not to know that in a small corner of HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow, a group of the most violent and uncontrollable prisoners in Scotland had been corralled together. And they were making art. Cue universal outrage.

The art part was the bit which sent heads spinning. These men were violent and damaged. They had spend large swathes of time in solitary confinement.

And what's more, it seemed to be changing them as men. It was manna from heaven to the media and it's fair to say not everyone was in favour.

One of the most controversial – and longest-running – experiments in penal reform in recent history, the Barlinnie Special Unit (BSU) broke barriers like no other experiment before, or arguably since. It opened in 1973 and held prisoners until 1994. At the fag-end of its existence, as a young reporter working for The Sunday Mail, I visited in the company of the newspaper's resident astrologer, Rita Madhok – or Darlinda, as she was known. It was a hot, stifling summer's day and I recall feeling claustrophobic in this confined Victorian space where there was – literally – no escape. The men kept rabbits in hutches and they were bolting about their exercise yard maniacally. It all seemed too metaphorical to be true.

By then, the men who made most of the Special Unit headlines had gone. Professional criminal turned sculptor, Jimmy Boyle, is the name most people remember but there were others who went on to become artists on the "outside", including Hugh Collins.

Today, more than 20 years after it closed its doors, the public's lingering fascination with the Special Unit persists. A small display called Barlinnie Special Unit - A way out of a dark time has just gone on show in Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum. It tells the story of how key individuals, including art therapist Joyce Laing, remodelled the worldwide established punishment ethos of prisons into a therapeutic community model.

The display has been created by a branch of Glasgow Museums called The Open Museum in partnership with the Scottish Prison Service and New College Lanarkshire. These organisations worked with adult learners from HMP Barlinnie’s Barbed Wireless project to create a history of the unit.

Claire Coia is curator for Glasgow Museum's Open Museum, which works with communities across Glasgow. She explains: "In 2012, Glasgow Museums received a donation of artworks and archives from Scotland’s first art therapist, Joyce Laing. Alongside her collection, it also inherited works of art and archives from the Special Unit.

"Joyce worked as the senior art therapist in the unit and was instrumental in helping to forming the ethos behind this unique experiment. Over a period of 21 years, she collected over 250 photographs, hundreds of newspaper clippings, ephemera and her diary entries. We also received a small collection of artworks by former inmates Jimmy Boyle, Hugh Collins and Bob Brodie.

"Our Scottish History curator, Tony Lewis, introduced me to the collection. He thought I might be interested because I create museum partnership projects in prisons and I had a good working relationship with the education providers in Barlinnie. He also showed me some amazing works of art donated by David Donnison, just three years earlier. These artworks were also by a former inmate of the Special Unit, Hugh Collins.

"Wondering if we had anything else in our collection, I did a bit of digging and discovered a couple of other artworks that Glasgow Museums had purchased from the Special Unit in the 1980s. So we had objects and archives, but knew very little about them. These are the objects which are in the display."

The exhibition was previously on show within Barlinnie for one week in November last year after adult learners from Barbed Wireless used the BSU archives from Glasgow Museums to conduct and record a series of interviews to research the unit's history. Throughout the project the prisoners worked towards gaining a recognised qualification in Communication and Creating Digital Media Content. They were also trained in object-handling, conservation, research and interpretation.

The display, which is on the ground floor in the section below Kelvingrove's "floating heads", is small but gives a flavour of work done within the Special Unit. With the involvement of prisoners in a Special Unit-free Barlinnie, it brings the story up-to-date. Examples of artwork from current prisoners is also on show.

A short film introduces the key characters and the concepts behind the Special Unit and contains footage of the exhibition launch in Barlinnie. Two large reproduced panels of Hugh Collins's charcoal drawings, studies for A Mother and Child, dominate the display. He has an exceptional feel for a line and the anguished energy in these two works pulses over the whole display.

There's also a handful of Jimmy Boyle sculptures, reminiscent of early African pottery and masks, alongside a lovely wee group of glazed ceramics works by Bob Brodie. These works which Brodie gifted to Laing, include a wee round ash-tray style dish, which contains a laid-back guitarist strumming for a small crowd of people curved around the opposite side of the circle.

The story of the Special Unit is one which is still being written. This small display is just the start.

Barlinnie Special Unit - A way out of a dark time, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow Until June 3.