What do parole and a punchline have in common? They both come at the end of a sentence…

As demonstrated above, there’s not anything all that funny about prison. In a two year stretch from September 2020 to 2022 there were 29 deaths by suicide in Scottish prisons, another 25 by drugs. Inmates can face the threat of violence, as well as stigmatisation and difficult readjusting to society on the outside.

However, a group of six comedians is looking to ensure it’s more puns than punishment as they try to improve lives behind bars through comedy. Together Amanda Hursy, Eddy Mackenzie, Mikey Motion, Paddy Linton, Jack Traynor, and Tattoo Dave form Wholesome Prison Blues, a touring troupe who bring laughs to lags across Scotland and will perform at HMP Barlinnie on Friday.

David McKinlay – AKA Tattoo Dave – tells The Herald: “The idea was born driving back from the Edinburgh Festival last year.

“We were sharing a story about a comedian we knew who had half of their audience walk out halfway through their set that day.

“So Jack in the back of the car said, ‘we should really be able to lock the door on people until we’re finished’ as a joke.

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“I said, ‘that would be your ultimate captive audience’ and at that exact moment Johnny Cash’s San Quentin Prison song came on the car stereo.

“Paddy said: ‘no THAT’S your ultimate captive audience’.

“So we had a wee joke about doing a comedy show in a prison and the next day I realised that I tattoo several people who work in the Scottish Prison Service.

“We reached out to them and got a bunch of contact details and what started out as wanting to do one gig has snowballed into this juggernaut where we’re basically going round every prison in Scotland doing stand-up.”

Wholesome Prison Blues did their first gig at HMP Low Moss in November and were such a hit that the following day they received emails from another three jails looking for them to come in and perform.

The group of six are all rising stars of the Scottish comedy scene, and will perform at the Tennent’s Basement as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival on April 1.

The Herald:

Any heckles there will be met with a scathing putdown – but do the same rules apply when the heckler has been incarcerated?

Mr McKinlay laughs: “Jack says he’s had a lot of firsts going into prison and one was the first time he’s ever actually apologised to a heckler!

“However, from what we’ve learned from speaking to prisoners and prison officers 90% of their day is all banter, all chat.

“So if we are heckled we do give it back. We don’t do a lot of audience interaction because obviously you can’t ask them ‘what do you do for a job?’ or ‘have you been anywhere on holiday?’.

“But if they instigate a conversation we’re all over it, because that’s part of comedy. There are maybe things we wouldn’t use to deal with a heckler that we’d use on the outside but we’re certainly interacting with hecklers in prison.

“It’s a win-win situation because the prison can use it as a reward for good behaviour, it’s good for the residents of the prisons because they’ve got something to look forward to where they’re just being treated as people, and it’s good for us as comedians because we can go and sharpen our skills.

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“You’re dealing with a large room of sober people, whereas if you’re doing a normal comedy gig most people will have had at least two drinks and they’ll be more relaxed.

“So in a prison we have to work a wee bit harder to get the crowd onside, which as a comedian you want to do as quickly as possible so that they trust you and trust that you’re going to be funny.

“It’s good for us, because if you can do that on a cold winter’s Monday morning in a prison you’ve no fear of doing it on a Friday night in a comedy club.

“I’m very proud of the acts we’ve taken in because they were all incredibly nervous about going into a prison.

The Herald:

“Amanda is the only female and I know she was exceptionally nervous, but she’s made a point of saying on numerous occasions that at no point during any gig have we felt in danger, or threatened.

“Usually the prisoners are brilliant but everyone at the Scottish Prison Service has looked after us and made us feel very welcome.”

While the bottom line is about having a laugh, there is a more serious message behind Wholesome Prison Blues, and the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of prisoners.

Mr McKinlay says: “To my eternal shame, before I started this project I was of the opinion that prison was purely for punishment: you’d done something bad and you go in there to serve your time.

“Having had the pleasure of going into almost every prison in Scotland, every member of the SPS is proud of the rehabilitation work they’re doing.

“One of the things we’re keen to do as a group is get the message out there that going into prison is your punishment but your time within the prison is spent on rehabilitation and education.

“One of the things we are keen to do is stand-up comedy workshops within the prisons.

“We’re trying to sort funding for that just now, the SPS can’t pay for that so we’re having to go through various charities.

“Even though we’re doing ‘this is a stand-up comedy thing you’ll get five minutes to do in front of your pals’, it’s teaching life skills that will hopefully come in useful when they get out of prison.

“It’s ticking the box of creative writing, confident public speaking, how to overcome anxiety or nerves.

“Our first prison gig was in Low Moss and it was November 21, we each did 10-15 minutes and we all saw this one wee guy in the crowd.

“He was sitting alone, he didn’t have any friends and wasn’t part of any group within the crowd and he laughed at every joke, every punchline, every setup. This guy had a ball.

“For that hour he wasn’t in prison, he was at The Stand or The Comedy Store. We took him out of his situation for an hour and made him feel like a person again.

“We all agreed that if we did nothing else with Wholesome Prison Blues we’d done that for one guy for one hour of his life.”

Wholesome Prison Blues play the Tennent's Basement on Saturday April 1 as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival. You can get tickets here.