THE sky darkens as we approach Magilligan Prison. The lights of the jail dance in the distance like forgotten Christmas lights; it starts to snow.
Magilligan Prison is a low to medium security prison and is used to incarcerate many prisoners who have been jailed for six years or less. The prison opened in May 1972 and can hold over 450 prisoners.
Emma Jane Logue, Art Skills Project Co-ordinator at Derry’s Playhouse Theatre, has arranged for us to meet with some of the prisoners inside the jail.
Emma and her team started the Art Skills project with the prisoners just before Christmas. The Art Skills project runs inside Magilligan Prison for two hours every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evening.
The project’s aim is to introduce prisoners to the concepts of creative writing, drama and digital photography. It’s hoped that the accredited qualification will help to increase the chances of prisoners getting a job when they are released.
We have been joined by one of the prison’s teachers, Eileen, and creative writing facilitator and Poetry Chick Pamela Browne.
Before I am allowed into the prison I have to hand over my mobile phone, recording device and camera. My interviews must be recorded using a good old pen and notepad.
There are a few security gates to get through before we reach the wing where we are due to meet the prisoners. I swipe my ID card, press my hand firmly against the finger print recognition device and the green light signals for me to enter.
Suddenly, a large imposing building appears to our right. I catch a glimpse of the prisoners inside through the door window. The prison guards inside unlock the security door and let us in.
We are taken on to the main floor of the prison wing and Eileen shows us into a small room. The room is furnished with computers, desks, chairs and a white board.
One by one, several prisoners make their way into the classroom. They all take a seat and then Emma Jane explains to the men who I am and why I am here.
Derry man Raymond Whitehouse agrees to talk to me.
Raymond looks to be in his early forties. He has long grey hair which stops just above his shoulders and has a beard. He’s well-built and after talking to him for a few minutes it becomes clear that he keeps himself fit by using the gym inside the prison.
Raymond is originally from Creggan but before he was sent to prison he lived with his family in the Waterside area of the city. He was found guilty of aggravated burglary with intent to cause grievous bodily harm (GBH). He was sentenced at the end of May last year and is hopeful that he will be released in April.
“I am taking part in the course because it breaks up my day to be honest,” says Raymond. “If I wasn’t sitting talking to you now I’d be sitting in the same seat I sit every day having the same conversations with the same people.”
Raymond explains that before he was sent to prison he was studying for a degree in psychology at the University of Ulster, Magee. He wants to return to his studies when he is released from Magilligan.
“I am enjoying the Art Skills course. It can be good fun at times and I am all for trying out new things. The girls from the Playhouse are great but to be honest I am just glad to be able to do something different with my day - in here can be like a morgue at times.”
Raymond, and the other prisoners on the wing, are locked up inside their individual cells every evening at 7.15pm until they are opened again at 8.30pm the following morning.
“It’s the same thing every day and take it from me I am never coming back here again. As soon as I get out, that’s me, I want to go back and finish my psychology degree.”
Paul Beattie is 43 years-old and is from south Belfast. Paul was found guilty of serious assault, danger to life and permanent disfigurement. He’s hopeful that he will be released in June but believes that he’ll probably have to wait until June 2013.
“I served the first part of my sentence in a prison in Scotland but I was extradited here last year.
“I am up for parole in June but I’ll probably not get it. I probably won’t be released until the following June.”
Paul helps out as a orderly in one of the education annex buildings near the prison wing. He said that enrolling in an art course was something that had never crossed his mind before but explains that he has surprised himself since he started to write poetry a few weeks ago.
“One of the teachers in the prison told me about the Art Skills project and explained to me what the girls from the Playhouse Theatre.
“I have never tried anything like this before and Emma and Pamela are great - they have really helped me to come out of myself. I have really enjoyed the course and I have even started to write some of my own poetry.”
Paul wrote a poem and titled it ‘My Journey’.
“I never believed that I could write poetry - I have really surprised myself.”
The prisoners have expressed so much interest in the creative writing workshops that it’s been suggested that they will enter a creative writing competition due to be held in Listowel in Kerry later this year.
“It would mean so much to me to be able to enter a writing competition and I don’t know how I would react if I was to win,” says Paul.
“Every day is the same in here so it’s nice to be able to have something to look forward. It gets me out of my cell for a few hours and it can be good craic to be honest.
“As I said, I have never tried anything like this before so Pamela has had to teach me everything. I am learning new things and hopefully it will stand me in good stead when I get out.”
John (not his real name) declined to say why or how long he was in prison. However he said that enrolling in the Art Skills project has helped him keep his mind active and said that when he gets out of prison he plans to keep writing as a hobby.
“Prison is a very, very boring and at times, isolating place. The Art Skills project has been a welcome addition to my week. It mixes things up for me and I enjoy reading books and then doing a bit of writing.”
John worked on the building sites in Germany for six years during the late 1980s and early 90s. He is fluent in German and says he has hopes of returning to Berlin when he is released.
“The creative writing workshop is another distraction to the monotony of prison life. It’s a welcome distraction to be honest.
“I enjoyed living and working in Germany and depending on how I get on when I get out of here I would love to go back and live there.
“I can never see myself doing anything to with art or creative writing professionally but I would really like it if I was able to keep it up when I get out.
“I am a builder by trade so I am interested in learning how to be a welder when I get out of here. I have also been learning IT skills and I am pretty adept at the minute. Hopefully when I get out of prison I’ll be able to put into use what I have learned.”
Creative writing facilitator Pamela Browne described her own experience of working with the prisoners as rewarding.
“Entering Magilligan is a totally new experience for me but in terms of conducting a workshop, it is not all together different from workshops with other groups.
“The extraordinary aspect of meeting those who attend the workshops is the openness which allows their backdrop and prison experience to inform their writing. Ultimately there are inestimable benefits to all because these workshops grant prisoners the freedom to write.”
Emma Jane Logue said that feedback from the prisoners was extremely positive and explained that life experience is something that is easily shared through the medium of creative writing.
“Art Skills Programme is delighted to be offering this unique programme in conjunction with Magilligan Prison for the second year. It gives the learners the opportunity of taking part in a programme which targets literacy as well as learning new art forms.
“The five art forms are Creative Writing, Digital Photography, Film and Video, Performance and Web Design, which will give the participants the opportunity to obtain open college network qualification in each subject.
“While visiting the project and talking to the participants I found that they were really enjoying the project, especially the creative writing element.
“In listening to them discuss possible themes for writing it was obvious they have a wealth of life experience and are natural storytellers in their own right.
“We hope this year to enter the creative writing produced during the course of the workshop into a competition specifically for prison writings.”
Artskills (the Creative Approaches to Literacy) is funded by The Department of Employment and Learning, The European Social Fund, and The Arts Council.