Northern Ireland news

Art behind bars helps rehabilitate even the toughest prisoners

Using the arts as therapy, even the toughest of prisoners are capable of change. Allison Morris pays a visit to the latest exhibition of work by Northern Ireland's inmates, who are walking a straighter path thanks to the work of the Prison Arts Foundation.

Painting by loyalist Michael Stone. Photograph by Declan Roughan.

IT wouldn't take an art critic to spot the very distinctive work of loyalist Michael Stone. His red, white and blue, pop art-style jars among the lighter touch of some of the other works on display at the exhibition in north Belfast organised by the Prison Arts Foundation.

The paintings, creative writing and crafts by prisoners are currently on display at The Duncairn art centre.

Some are incredibly accomplished. Others show real skill and some an emotional glimpse into the often troubled lives of the prisoners who created them.

The Prison Arts Foundation (PAF) work with both adult and young offenders.

Set up in 1996 the charity works with men and women, many of whom have lived chaotic lives and never engaged with education. Few have any formal qualifications.

What they do have is time on their hands and many have used that time to hone their skills to become in some cases accomplished artists.

Among the exhibition are works selling for upwards of £300.

Former prison governor Fred Caulfield, now the executive director of PAF, said that through arts they manage to bring a sense of calmness to many of the prisoners lives.

Prisoners Art Exhibition, Stephen Greer, former prisoner in Maghaberry, with his drawing of Mohammad Ali. Photograph by Declan Roughan.

While controversial the programme has helped reduce offending rates and brings mental health benefits to the prisoners who engage with it.

"There is a therapeutic side to it, there's a mental health and wellbeing aspect to it, but it's also about building self esteem", Mr Caulfield said.

For the first time the prisoners art is for sale, any money raised will be split between providing future services and materials and with a contribution to Victims Support.

"Some prisoners don't realise the talent they have, we've seven staff, all qualified artists who do creative writing, fine art and ceramics," Mr Caulfield said

"The fine art they can do in their cells it gives them something to keep their minds active."

Skye Bompas holding a photograph of herself taken by her friend Stephen Greer, former prisoner in Maghaberry.

Life sentence prisoner Louis 'Lugar' Maguire, from north Belfast is one of the foundation's most enthusiastic artists. There are a number of his works on display, using different mediums, from oils to acrylics.

His much softer and considered approach sits at odds with the distinctive work of Milltown killer Michael Stone, a British Bulldog, standing on a pile of bones, glares menacingly, on sale for £215.

The talent of recently released prisoner Stephen Greer, is obvious, putting his criminal past behind him. He has continued to expand his artistic repertoire to other mediums including photography and has now his own small studio with his work nominated for a number of awards.

Prisoners Art Exhibition, Duncairn Art Centre, Belfast. Photograph by Declan Roughan.

Mr Caulfield said; "We try to find what they would like to do by putting them into group work and seeing where their talents might be.

"With released prisoners like Stephen there is a mentoring and supportive programme for after they are release and we'd hope he could come back as a mentor and speak to young offenders in the future", he added.

The Prison Arts Foundation’s Exhibition will run until Friday, April 12, at The Duncairn, Duncairn Avenue, Belfast, Co Antrim, BT14 6BP.

Picture by Declan Roughan

Picture by Declan Roughan

Michael Stone in 2001 with some of his work painted in the Maze Prison at an exhibition of his work in the Engine Room Gallery on Belfast's Newtownards Road.Picture by Pacemaker

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