Although by default being in prison is an isolating experience, the effects of incarceration ripple out beyond the bars to touch families and communities across Scotland.  

Hidden behind closed doors, or in systems not on view to the general public, the legacy of imprisonment affects is felt by many people whose stories are never told.  

And this is most keenly felt as the prisoner comes home – changed by their experience, but also returning to a changed world which has moved on without them.  

Now the tales of everyone involved in the prison and rehabilitation process are being brought to life with a new ground-breaking piece of theatre which explores the Scotland’s prison system and its convicts through their own words, as songs.  

A Giant on the Bridge, which begins touring next month, explores the intimate human experiences within the prison-homecoming journey which is felt by 10,000 people in Scotland every year. 

Six years in the making, it has drawn on hundreds of songs written by prisoners, prison staff, families of those behind bars and all those touched by the justice system through a series of workshops in prisons including Castle Huntly, Inverness, Polmont, Barlinnie and Glenochil. 

Five Scottish musicians - Admiral Fallow frontman Louis Abbot, singer-songwriter Jo Mango, multi-instrumentalist Jill O’Sullivan, Raveloe - aka songwriter Kim Grant - and hip-hop artist Solareye- perform in the show, with songs exploring identity, family, community, systems, restoration, injustice - and the pulsing heartbeat within these hidden stories. 

The Herald: Jo Mango Jo Mango (Image: A Giant on the Bridge)

Devised by Jo Mango and award-winning Scottish theatre-maker Liam Hurley, the ‘gig-theatre’ performance explores the web of relationships formed when someone is imprisoned, with an over-arching narrative about a fictional prisoner being released and coming home.  

Musical styles range from hip-hop, to indie and Indian folk, while the show blends in story telling and poetry as it weaves its tale.  

Jo Mango said: “We paired songwriters who don’t appear on stage like Christopher Duncan, Kris Drever, Emma Pollok from the Delgados amongst other amazing musicians with people in those situations to help them to write songs about their experience of what it’s like to come home from prison, or to face coming home from prison. 

READ MORE: SNP looked at 'prison ships' and queues for cells to ease packed jails

“We worked with people still in prison or facing release, or people who had been out for a while. People who might be nervous about people coming home from prison, because they had been harmed by crime – or someone who has a family member who has been in prison for a long time.  

“The kind of story of coming home from prison affects lots of different people, and is affected by lots of different people.” 

Informed through research by Dr Phil Crockett Thomas, a Lecturer in Criminology in Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology at the University of Stirling, A Giant on the Bridge has been developed through the work of the Distant Voices Community, a research project incorporating people from all aspects of the criminal justice system, funded by the ESRC and run by charity Vox Luminis. 

Each prison in Scotland costs the taxpayer £37,334 a year to maintain behind bars, indicating the scope of the networks required to keep an individual isolated.  

The Herald: Barlinnie Barlinnie (Image: NQ)

More than 200 songs written in prison sessions were sifted through to come up with the set list, with the opening track written by a prisoner who has since been freed, and returned to work on the project.  

Jo Mango was behind organising the sessions inside prisons, and saw first-hand the transformative effect music could have on those serving time. 

READ MORE: No plans 'emergency release' of prisoners despite overcrowding fears

She said: “We tried to draw out strands of meaning or shared experience that was coming from all these different songs and we whittled it down to the number that are in the show. 

“Then, working with people from those communities, we crafted these fictional narratives that really represent real-life experiences. They represent what we learned. 

“Most importantly, I guess in quite a lot of projects like this the role of music is kind of like the saviour. It helps people to go straight, or it gives them something to focus on.” 

She added: “Music is really good for that. It’s an incredible thing. Quite often the results would be a real joyous surprise, about what was able to be created within a short space of time.  

“But more than that, the sort of connections it creates between people in the room was what we observed so much. People who did not know each other before – prison does not connect people together, it isolates them – and to see people come in very shut off from each other and their own emotions, at the end of three days working together have everyone laughing and talking about their experiences and joining in singing together is quite a remarkable thing.  

“We tried to capture how music can bring people together in understanding each other. How music helps us to move from monologuing to dialoguing. From solo to chorus.” 

The Herald: Multi-instrumentalist Jill O’SullivanMulti-instrumentalist Jill O’Sullivan (Image: A Giant on the Bridge)

A Giant on the Bridge will visit Cumbernauld Theatre Tue 5 March, Dundee Rep Thu 7 March and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 8 and Sat 9 March. 

For Jo, finally seeing the production on stage will end of one part of the musical journey, but hopefully not the final step.  

Many people have been involved in its creation, and many more will see it onstage – with the ripples reaching outwards again.  

She said: “It’s not one singular vision. It’s always complicated. But it always is greater than the sum of its parts, and its extraordinary to see where it’s come from and just how all these different people with different experiences of the criminal justice system and crime have come together to create such a coherent, cohesive, beautiful, respectful thing.  

“It’s been great, and I hope it will carry on that journey as well.”