Art at the heart of the Irish Prison Education Service

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November 2018 – by Tom Shortt, Arts Development Officer and Coordinator, Irish Prison Education Service

The role of Arts Development Officer was created within the Irish Prison Education Service, to coordinate the activity of both the Visual Artists and Writers in Prisons Schemes. Launched in 1989, the schemes are co-funded by the Irish Prison Service and the Arts Council of Ireland and have enjoyed great success and proved both popular and productive throughout their thirty year history. Prison teachers exploit the schemes to offer prisoners opportunities to participate in workshops, in creative writing or a specialised area of the visual arts, working closely with experienced professional writers and artists.

Gary Cunningham, attended creative writing classes in Mountjoy Prison where he began writing Joy of Joys, published since his release and optioned by Metropolitan Films.

There is anticipation that the outcome of a review, already in process, will see the expansion of the schemes to offer workshops in the performing arts. The experience is that performances and workshops conducted by visiting actors and musicians are warmly received and appreciated. Prisoners welcome advice from well-known singer songwriters and impressive talent has emerged in drama workshops when organised locally

The introduction of a new scheme, to increase and streamline funding for these workshops, opens up exciting creative potential. Music departments in prison schools are offering courses in sound engineering while art departments are developing skills in multi-media communication using video editing techniques. Visits from a wider pool of artists will increase the potential for collaboration, where a script produced in a creative writing workshop can be developed as an animated film and videos might be edited in a multi-media workshop that will bring rap and music recordings to a wider audience.


The Rua Red Arts Centre Tallaght Dublin

An exhibition of Creative Arts by People in Custody, at the Rua Red Arts Centre in the Dublin suburb of Tallaght, in September 2019, showing work from thirteen Irish prison will reflect some of these emerging trends.

The event is developing as a festival of prison art with plans to include recordings and live performances of music and poetry, linked to an exhibition of visual art, accompanied by a publication of recent prison writing. The 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.       

Prisoners, 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.

Irish artist Brian Maguire

Many more prisoners will contribute to the success of the event, 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 media coverage of the event will be accessible to prisoners. Participation in the exhibition, one of a series organised every other year, is a positive experience; both for people in custody and their families, and a programme of events will encourage community engagement.


Tom Shortt, Irish Prison Service Arts Officer and Aileen Anne Brannigan, visiting artist and sculptor at Shelton Abbey Open Prison in County Wicklow

The Arts Officer coordinates workshops and exhibitions, brings teachers together for in-service education and facilitates development within the sector.  At the moment, Collaborationis the working title in use, concerning the exhibition in 2019,expressing the unique way in which people work within the education service to achieve positive outcomes and real change. The first report of a new Joint Agency Response to Crime, published on 25th September in Dublin, found that educational achievement by prisoners, while in prison and post release, was a key factor influencing a reduction in repeat offending. Participation in the arts has proved to be a very effective gateway to education for people in custody, within the Irish system, and 2019 promises to be an exciting and busy year, of new possibilities and a major exhibition, celebrating the central role of the arts at the heart of the Irish Prison Education Service.