The Role of the Arts
in the Irish Prison Education Service

Tom Shortt
Arts Officer & Coordinator
Irish Prison Education Service  

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A group of art teachers from thirteen prison schools in the Republic of Ireland attending a Professional Development Day at the Irish Museum of Modern Art on 26th January 2018

A designated Education Service has been developed within the Irish Prison Service, since the 1980s and essentially the aim is to provide Further Education or Adult Education opportunities, within each prison, comparable to the equivalent service outside the prison walls in the mainstream of Irish society.  Arising from this policy, a fully equipped and resourced school exists now within each of the thirteen Irish prisons and at a small number of post release centres. People in custody attend education by choice and the take up attending education is approximately 50% of the prison population. The school in The Midlands Prison, the largest prison in the Republic of Ireland, with a prison population of 800 inmates, has a staff of 40 full-time and part-time teachers, delivering courses in a wide range of practical and academic subjects. There is a positive  pupil-teacher ratio and classes are small. Facilities have been developed and art departments are equipped with kilns for pottery, while musical instruments and recording facilities are available in music departments. Other departments in woodwork, engineering, cookery, IT, etc., are also well equipped. Essentially education is delivered in prison schools in Ireland by means of a partnership arrangement between two state agencies, the Irish Prison Service and the Education and Training Board Ireland.

Teachers are employed and paid by the Education Board while working in a prison environment, regulated by the prison authorities. Some teachers work in schools both inside and outside prisons. Courses are accredited within the ten levels of the Irish National Framework of Qualifications which is harmonised with the European Qualifications Framework. This system is designed so that learners can achieve a recognised level of education while in custody and progress to a higher level, post release, at a school in the community.  

Art teacher Pearl Maher, working with a learner at Shelton Abbey Open Prison  

The Irish Prison Service has created a specific grade of Prison School Officer. This is a liaison officer with special training who encourages and supports learners with respect to school attendance. The Head Teacher, Prison Governor and Prison Psychological Services coordinate their efforts to achieve good outcomes for learners. The school hosts many visiting agencies, providing courses and advice in health, parenting, career options etc. The most modern prison in the Republic of Ireland, in Cork city, has brought all personnel providing services for prisoners together in one hub ranging from teachers providing education to social workers who provide housing solutions etc., for people in custody post release.        

This educational policy reflects how the Irish Prison Service accepts and supports the two overall themes of The Council of Europe Report “Education in Prisons” 1990 in that:

“The education of prisoners must, in its philosophy, methods and content, be brought as close as possible to the best Adult Education in society outside: and secondly, education should be constantly seeking ways to link prisoners to the outside community and to enable both groups to interact with each other as fully and as constructively as possible”
(Council of Europe, 1990, p. 14)

The Irish Prison Education Service also subscribes to the Council of Europe Recommendations on Prison Education (1989) which essentially consists of a charter of rights for prisoners with respect to education consisting of 17 key recommendations. There was significant input by Ireland in the development of this charter which is currently under review.

Life After Joy, one of two books published by former prisoner Gary Cunningham in 2017 and 2018 after attending creative writing classes while serving a sentence in the Irish prison system.

During an enlightened period of development in the late 1980s a partnership was developed between the Irish Prison Service and the Arts Council of Ireland. Two schemes were launched, co-funded by both agencies, known as the Visual Artists in Prisons and the Writers in Prisons Schemes. For thirty years now, professional artists and writers have conducted visual arts and creative writing workshops in prisons in co-operation with the regular teaching staff. This represents extra funding and stimulus in the arts. There is great freedom for interpretation and the work is generally not subject to accreditation but is exhibited, installed in the prison environment, entered in competitions or published in magazines and books.  

Artists and writers apply to join the schemes and must satisfy a checklist of professional achievements to qualify. They must also apply for security clearance. Once accepted, there is a procedure whereby the resident teacher of Art or English invites an artist or writer to submit a proposal. The proposal is assessed by the coordinator and once approved the workshop can be scheduled.  The artists and writers are paid from the scheme by staff working within the Arts Council and the prison school must provide the materials required.

Teachers promote the workshops and attract participation from learners already attending education. Learners attend by choice, based on interest, and enjoy working with professional practitioners. The quality of the experience is monitored. The resident teachers support the artists and writers, during the workshops, and there is a structure for reporting and documenting the work produced. The programmes are about to be reviewed, as limitations are evident. Music and theatre are popular within prisons, however at present the existing schemes do not extend to funding visits by actors and musicians to perform and conduct workshops. Meanwhile any activity organised in these areas proves to be very valuable and successful in educational terms.

Painting produced by a person in custody during a Visual Artists in Prisons workshop with artist Mary Burke, at Cloverhill Remand Prison in Dublin, April 2018

An Exhibition of Creative Arts by People in Custody is mounted by the Irish Prison Education Service on a biennial basis. This exhibition features art work from the thirteen prisons in Ireland and the post-release centres. Rua Red the South Dublin Arts Centre in Tallaght will be the venue for the next of these exhibitions in September 2019 and the event is growing into a month long festival of prison art. There are plans to include multi-media art, recordings and live performances of music and original theatre, alongside an exhibition of visual art accompanied by a publication of recent prison writing.  

Irish artist Brian Maguire

This exhibition will be curated by Irish artist Brian Maguire, who enjoys an international reputation and pioneered the promotion of visual art education within the Irish Prison Service. The Rua Red gallery is committed to exhibiting art with a socio-political context and the exhibition will reach a wider audience touring to the Hunt Museum in Limerick City, in October and November 2019.

Rua Red. The South Dublin Arts Centre Tallaght.

Learners, teachers, artists and writers working throughout the system are focused on making this exhibition a successful showcase for the positive role of the arts in the Irish Prison Education Service. Many more prisoners will contribute to the success of the exhibition, as much of the work associated with the production of the exhibition will be completed in prison framing and print workshops. The families of people in custody, serving sentences and unable to visit the exhibition, will be invited to attend and the event tends to attract positive media coverage which will be accessible to prisoners. Participation in the exhibition is a positive experience; both for people in custody and their relatives, and a programme of events will encourage dissemination and community engagement.

Top: Irish Prison Service Arts Officer, Tom Shortt.  Below: Poster for Art teachers’ Professional Development Day, January 2018, based on a self-portrait drawing produced by a person in custody during a Visual Artists in Prisons workshop with artist Christopher Banahan at Loughan House Open Prison in November 2017

The Arts Officer coordinates workshops and exhibitions, brings teachers together for professional development and initiates, facilitates and advocates for development within the sector. Negotiations have commenced between the Irish Prison Education Service and the Arts Council of Ireland with the intention of replacing the two existing arts schemes with one new inclusive scheme. The intention is that the new scheme will be a vehicle for introducing artists from all disciplines into prisons to facilitate the widest possible opportunities for artistic expression by people in custody into the future. Presently the working title Collaboration is in use concerning the exhibition in 2019 to express the unique way in which people work within the Irish Prison Education Service to achieve positive outcomes and real change.     

Art work by people in custody at Portlaoise High Security Prison, 2017

Stephen Greer, photographed with his work at a Prison Arts Foundation, pop-up exhibition at the Crumlin Road Gaol Museum, Belfast, March 2018. A former prisoner in Northern Ireland, Stephen is a full-time art student post release.

In conclusion, it is evident from the numbers of people in custody within the Irish Prison system who engage freely with creative activities in an educational environment that learners themselves identify the value of the arts as a means of self-development. The challenge to the Irish Prison Education Service is to facilitate and manage this process of engagement successfully. Learners naturally identify the therapeutic qualities of artistic expression and appreciate the value of co-operative learning and constructive relationships with teachers and visiting artists. For significant numbers of people in custody the arts serve a vital role as a gateway to further education. The art experience and process is to the forefront in triggering reflection and developing critical thinking while helping to generate empathy and compassion for others. Art workshops in the context of prison education are seen to facilitate social cohesion, foster a sense of belonging reducing isolation and encouraging positive social engagement. The Irish Prison Education Service is under the umbrella of the Rehabilitation and Care Directorate of the Irish Prison Service and plans are in train to innovate and to improve resources and staffing in key grades in 2019 to facilitate the delivery of quality services for people in custody, facilitating rehabilitation into the future. Education and the Arts have a key role in this process.

September 2018