Deep within the confines of a young offenders institution, a 20-year-old is climbing a ladder being held aloft by a small group of his fellow inmates.

Two young women make silent encouraging gestures from the shadows of the darkened room, and a senior officer looks on curiously as the young man takes tentative steps towards the top.

Even the staff at Polmont Young Offenders Institution (YOI) are willing him on. Yet this bid for freedom is no break-out. 

Instead, this is a scene from a production of the first youth theatre to be established within a YOI.

Today, friends and family of the performing inmates will gather to see
the work conceived and executed by a small group of men, members of Polmont Youth Theatre.

The project, Footsteps On The Moon, comes after two previous productions involving the YOI’s inmates, and is the first production since the inception of the group as a youth theatre in February this year.

The piece has been devised by the men working with theatre practitioners from Glas(s) Productions since the start of the year. 

Now film and television actor Gary Lewis has joined as official patron of Polmont Youth Theatre. Best known for roles in Billy Elliot and Gangs of New York, the Glasgow actor believes the work being done by the youths as part of a wider exposure to creative outlets is key to their rehabilitation.

Lewis said: “If there’s a chance to actually improve the lives of these folk so that when they are coming out they are in some way helped to do and see things differently, that’s really important. 

“These people have hurt others, but a lot of them have been hurt. Art is a way for people to relate to humanity, and what better way to start than with your own life, looking at your own story, talking with your own voice.”

Lewis, 61, recently visited the YOI to work with inmates as they developed the new production, and his role will see him return for further projects.

He added: “I was struck by how supportive they were of each other. 

“People can be subjected to all sorts of abuse and bullying. It was good that there was an atmosphere where a degree of trust had been created.

“When I got involved in drama at a group in Easterhouse I was in a room full of folk I’d never met before. I didn’t know these people. But when you start working together towards something like a play, you start to shrink the distance.”

For 20-year-old inmate Aiyo, the project is a crucial part of his social rehabilitation as he works hopefully towards reintegration in 2021.

“This has given me confidence to do things I wouldn’t have done before,” says the young man, originally from Africa. “And it has helped give me enlightenment on how to change things and make them better.  

“Footsteps On The Moon is about the idea that the sky cannot be the limit, because there are footsteps on the moon. But the message is about togetherness, and the idea that you cannot do things on your own.” 

“Everything we do here is teamwork. There’s not one person doing anything on their own. It’s about team work and motivation.

One scene in the production sees the inmates read aloud from letters they were encouraged to write in acknowledgement of figures in their lives who have changed them.

“Mine is about my dad, and it’s very emotional,” said Aiyo. “He wasn’t there when I was growing up, and my letter is thanking him for that.

“The life I had without him is probably still better than the life I would have had if he was. I’m better than he was, and I don’t need him. I’ve never really expressed those feelings before. I only started to realise that in my late teens that I’m better off without him.

“The people I started off with at university are graduating next year and that makes me determined to do better and make up for the time I’ve lost here.”

The production’s co-directors Rosie Reid and Gudrun Soley Sigurdardottir are determined that the production is approached with the same integrity as any other youth theatre they work with.

Ms Reid said: “The quality of the work needs to be high, and it’s important for them that they feel confident in that.

“It’s very different to direct in a space like this because we’re dealing with different things you don’t have to deal with outside prison, rules are in place and things change all the time.

“By making this work we can present an alternative view about these young people making a piece of work about being a human being rather than being defined as a prisoner.”

Grant Marshall, unit manager of offender outcomes at Polmont, hopes the establishing of an official youth theatre within the prison sees greater uptake among the institution’s near 500-strong population, mostly men.

He said: “A lot of the young people here recognise that they have an opportunity to have a second chance.

“Polmont has been working through difficult periods of time,” he said.

“We are trying to show that Polmont isn’t a place where folk are thrown into and the key is thrown away.” 

“This is for these guys to learn different skills and behave in a way that they wouldn’t when they’re in a residential setting, where they wear a mask just to survive among their peer group.”

Jess Thorpe, artistic director of Glas(s) performance, added: “Introducing the project in Polmont as a proper youth theatre brings these young people into a mainstream sector.

“It makes them and their voices visible and offers them a real chance to be part of wider set of positive opportunities when they rejoin our community.”