Writer and Author

Tag: Prisons

Art for art’s sake?

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason - The Training Room

Female Addict No. 2 by Jason

There was a lot of controversy just before Paddy’s Day when the news came out that Eamonn Lillis would be exhibiting two paintings in a public exhibition. The news, coming as it did shortly after the announcement that he had helped to organise a play in Wheatfield Prison that would be viewed by Irish President Michael D. Higgins, caused a bit of a debate on whether or not convicted felons should be preening for adulation from behind bars.

When it was reported, after the opening weekend of the exhibition in the museum at Kilmainham Gaol, that one of Lillis’s paintings had been vandalised, with the word “killer” scrawled on the frame, there was a certain amount of righteous clucking. Why should a man who had killed his wife get to show off in public? He was in prison as a punishment for his crime, and certainly shouldn’t be building a portfolio.

It’s taken me a while to get to the exhibition. I hadn’t wanted to comment until I’d seen what was there and I was curious about how the art work would be presented in a venue as iconic as Kilmainham Gaol.  But the sunshine this week was too much of a draw so I wandered across yesterday. I’d gone with certain preconceptions and my own views on the use of a notorious case like Lillis’s to sell the museum but when I got there my qualms were swept away.

While Lillis’s two rather insipid watercolours do greet you as you walk in the door The Crushed Bull exhibition actually has something genuine to offer.  For starters it’s not just the work of one headline grabbing killer, but that of prisoners scattered around the country’s prisons and those who went to two support centres after their release. There’s a range of styles and levels of talent on show but some of the pieces are genuinely arresting and thought provoking. It’s a varied collection. Paintings in a variety of mediums hang above sculptures in clay or stone.  There are mosaics, jewellery (mostly made by the women of the Dochas Prison – where Sharon Collins is serving her time) in all shapes and sizes.

Rabbit By Peter - Wheatfield Prison

Rabbit By Peter – Wheatfield Prison

But even if you didn’t come to the exhibition hoping for a glimpse into the minds of some of the county’s worst, it’s almost impossible to forget that this isn’t an ordinary group show. It’s a point that’s rather clumsily underlined in the first room of the exhibition where the Lillis paintings hang beside a collection with a distinct prison bar motif and the painting of the tabby cat staring intently at a goldfish hangs across the disturbingly surrealist grouping on a small chest of drawers in an empty room. A pair of glowing eyes stare out of the drawer in the painting by Eric B. from Portlaoise Prison (notorious for it’s gangland inmates), who signs his work with a pentacle. On top of the chest of drawers in the painting is a pocket watch, an empty wine bottle, a gun and two severed fingers with red lacquered oval nails.  There’s a clay elephant across from that painting, which is right by the door into the exhibition. It’s wearing glasses and is next to a card proclaiming it The Elephant in the Room, by Anon from the Midlands Prison, home to the most notorious of them all, Joe O’Reilly. One thing that’s certain about this opening grouping is that the elephant is somewhat redundant – this exhibition is wearing it’s credentials firmly pinned to it’s chest.

It’s a shame though. You see, when you turn the corner and enter the exhibition proper, you begin to see a point beyond the voyeuristic.  There’s some real talent here and some genuine insight. Some of the work might be a little to obvious in their influences but the cubist Female Addict No. 2 by Jason, from the rehab centre The Training Unit, makes a real impact. That’s why I used the image at the top of this post.  There are some more aggressive pieces (though none as obvious as Erik with his severed fingers). Here and there there are skull motifs or devils but most of the landscapes are noticeably empty. Some of the most poignant works are from the remand prisoners in Cloverhil Prison, where many wait to be deported. A little girl beams up at an anonymous dad, a group work gives a patchwork of political protest. This isn’t really an insight into the criminal mind, just a glimpse at the attempted rehabilitation of men and women who made mistakes and are now paying for them.

I’ve covered the courts for long enough to see the number of people who’ve entered a life of crime because they didn’t have a hell of a lot of choice. Time and time again there are people who couldn’t escape from a hopeless existence, who wandered into a life of drink, drugs and violence because they couldn’t see another way. I’m not saying they were right. I’m not saying that those who commit crimes, especially violent ones, shouldn’t pay a price, but I do believe in second chances. If prison art classes or theatrical performances help to encourage people to go in a different direction, show them a better life, then shouldn’t they be applauded rather than condemned? Exhibitions like this one should never be about the freak show, they should be about redemption.

It’s unfortunate that the Crushed Bull was sold with one of the biggest circuses of recent years. Lillis isn’t the kind of person who can really benefit from this kind of initiative. He, like other middle class, headline grabbing criminals, doesn’t need to have his horizons opened – they should already be. People like Lillis threw away lives that many of those they now get to see on a daily basis could only dream of. That might make them attractive to news editors across the board but when it comes down to it, they should have known better. Lillis’s involvement in an initiative like this only muddies the water and distracts from the positive. Instead of talking about whether Lillis is having too much fun in prison the discussion should be about the value of the arts…except that’s a subject that doesn’t tend to make headlines in quite the same way.

A Vision of a Dickensian Past…

I love to start the day with a bit of hyperbole but in the case of the Irish Prison system it’s not much of an exaggeration. Yesterday at their annual conference the Irish Prison Officer’s Association complained that the chronic over crowding and lack of resources in Irish prisons was making their jobs near impossible.

As I’ve mentioned here before I’ve been spending a lot of time delving into a more Dickensian style of justice over the past few months.  When Dicken’s  Bleak House was first serialised in the mid 1850s Kilmainham Goal was still an unreformed mass of men, women and children forced to desperate measures by years of famine.  If you ever have the chance to take the tour look beyond the political stars who helped to create the State we live in and look at the ordinary cells in the old part of the building. They’re tiny, cold and dark.  In those days there wouldn’t have even been glass on the windows so on cold nights the winter wind would bite at inmates trying to sleep. Exercise was minimal, a shuffling circuit of a tiny yard, whose high grey walls hid all but the pale blue of the sky. The prisoners were put to hard labour, and forced to survive on a diet of not much more than bread and water.  If you had money things were a little easier as deep pockets could buy all kinds of luxuries from the underpaid, easily swayed prison guards.

Over a century and a half later it’s easy to assume that things are far more humane – and they are, of course.  There’s no longer hard labour and the windows in modern prisons do have glass in them but listening to the prison officers there’s still a long way to go.

I’ve only been inside a prison once and that was to a remand prison, where those who are awaiting trial, or extradition, or deportation are sent.  These are men who have not been convicted of any crime.  They are not serving a sentence, even if they are awaiting a trial.  The prison, Cloverhill, is classified as a medium security institution. I’ve spent enough time working in the courts to be somewhat cynical when it comes to guilt or innocence but the fact remains that our justice system centres on the presumption of innocence.  If there’s no conviction, in the eyes of the law, there’s no guilt.

OK so practically, any remand prison is going to contain at least some prisoners who will one day be fully guilty in the eyes of the law. They will inevitably be pretty nasty individuals even before that sentence is handed down because real life doesn’t have the same level of distinction that the law has when dealing with this tricky subject of guilt and innocence. When people end up in a remand prison before standing trial it’s generally because for one reason or another they haven’t qualified to be out on bail. It’s complicated.

I’d got to know the visitors centre attached to Cloverhill while I was covering a trial in the attached courthouse over several long weeks in the Spring of 2007.  It’s a great service for the families who come to visit the prison. Toys for visiting kids, tea and coffee and the women who staff the place are always happy to offer words of advice and support. It was set up by the Quakers and the walls are bright with children’s pictures.  The pictures might have to taken down though – prison authorities have ruled they’re a fire hazard.  The women who run the place are most proud of  the so-called Unity Quilt, it’s squares made by visitors, prison officers, solicitors and staff at the centre, which is due to hang above the service hatch to welcome anyone who comes in with a brightly coloured gesture of humanity.  It’s not up there yet though.  It’s had to be sent away to be treated with fire retardant…completion date and cost unknown.

The visitors’ centre is one of the few signs of humanity you’ll see when you visit the prison though.  It’s a pretty grim experience.  When you apply for a visit you are given a time with the strict instruction that you arrive fifteen minutes ahead of time for your half hour visit.  I was booked in for a 2 o’clock appointment and sat nursing a cup of tea while the clock ticked past the hour, waiting for the prison officers to finish their lunch and come and open the hatch.

Once you’re checked off the list, had your ID checked and you’ve left mobile phone, bag, coat etc in the lockers provided it’s time to walk across the car park to the prison itself.  Heavy metal doors slide back to let you through in increments with frequent stops for more ID checking.  The security check is stiffer than the one’s you find in Irish airports, a full body scan and pat down, shoes off, the lot.  Then it’s through a rabbit run of high wire fences to another automated metal door that lead to the prison proper…sort of.

The visit itself takes place in one of a series of rooms.  Well when I say rooms…it’s not like you see on TV.  There’s no cubicle with speaker phone hung on the wall, no large room with bare tables and plastic chairs, nothing like those tense scenes from Hollywood when the heroine confronts the bad guy .  There’s a large room that’s been divided into smaller rooms.  The smaller rooms have two glass walls and along their length are little benches positioned in front of a hatch like the kind you find in a bank or a dole office.  There’s no speaker phone.  You have to raise you voice to be heard through the metal grill set into the ledge in front of you.  The rooms alternate, one’s with open doors for the visitors and ones with a blue metal door down one end and a caged box for a prison officer at the other.  There was something about the place that reminded me of an  old aquarium or a calf shed.  Somewhere to go to view, not to have any kind of meaningful conversation.

Most of the other visitors on the same slot as me were young mothers wrangling hyperactive toddlers.  They leaned low over the metal grills and tried to murmur a private conversation over the din.  The kids ran up and down the room, bored and shrieking, ignoring the taps on the glass from their dads as they tried to attract their attention.  They’ll grow up with memories of seeing daddy in that grim cattle shed that won’t be tempered by the bright colours of the visitors centre quilt.  Couples put hands up to the glass to simulate contact under the bored gaze of the prison guard. The women took it all in their stride, accepting the grim normality, just the way things were.

I know prisons are meant to be a deterrent and contact is banned to prevent the passing of drugs or other contraband but it didn’t seem to offer much dignity to those having to shout to make themselves heard.  It all felt a long way away from the holiday camp that we’re told Irish prisons have become.  I only saw the tip of the iceberg as a visitor but it really didn’t feel all that much different from the the Victorian corridors of Kilmainham.

Irish rates of recidivism run at about 40% – you don’t have to cover the courts for long to be unsurprised by this depressing statistic.  Earlier this year the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture castigated the Irish prison system, calling it “degrading” and “debasing” citing the hundreds of prisoners forced to slop out their cells each day.  The tabloids run a steady stream of stories about mobile phones and drugs being freely available in the majority of Irish prisons. The system as it stands doesn’t work but it’s going to take a serious rethink to change it.  Overcrowding needs to be dealt with. There should be greater support for those leaving prison so they don’t slide straight back into their old lives.  It’s easy to say but it’s harder to do but something needs to be done.  Maybe rather than viewing the problem in isolation we should take a leaf out of the Scandinavian approach of viewing the issue holistically, treating each offender as an individual with an individual path to where they are and individual needs afterwards. Surely it’s worth a try anyway?

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