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April 10, 2013

A community under lock and key

130 years ago Scotland’s largest and most notorious prison was built – Barlinnie.  Over that time, tens of thousands of Scotland’s prisoners have passed through its gates, each one contributing in some way to the unique history of the Bar-L.  While the general public may be familiar with some of the darker aspects of the prison’s past, there are other, more positive stories to be told, not least how the prison has impacted on the local community. Enter stage left, Theatre Nemo.


By Rachel Fulton  


For 130 years, Barlinnie Prison – or Bar L as it is locally known – has kept West Coast prisoners under lock and key.

Its cell doors have bolted at the backs of generations of criminals, most notably gangster Paul Ferris, Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and gangland murderer Jimmy Boyle.

These criminal celebrities steal the spotlight when stories of Barlinnie are told, but local charity Theatre Nemo believe there is more to be learned in the hidden, unread chapters of the prison’s history.

“There have been a lot of histories of Barlinnie, but they have been all about the famous and infamous people,” said Isabel McCue, founding director of Theatre Nemo.

“This is not about the Jimmy Boyles. It’s about ordinary, working-class people, often living in poverty, and what would have happened to them and their families as a result of their imprisonment.

“We want to compare their experience with what it is like today. We hope it will shed light on what we are doing wrong and how we can make it better.”

The charity aims to investigate these stories throughout 2013, culminating in a documentary entitled ‘Who Built Barlinnie?’ and artwork showcasing an honest history of the prison.

Theatre Nemo uses the creative arts to help rehabilitate people with mental health problems, and has a long working relationship with Barlinnie and its inmates.

The group provide creative workshops to help prisoners express themselves, engage with others and successfully re-integrate into society at the end of their jail term.

The charity has secured £9,700 funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to deliver the Barlinnie project and uncover the prison’s crime trends of the last 130 years.

The idea for the project was sparked when director of Theatre Nemo Isabel McCue was gifted one of three bricks from Barlinnie’s old hanging quarters by the prison governor.

“The governor said to me ‘If these bricks could talk, what a tale they would tell’ and that got me thinking,” said Isabel.

Isabel then sought funding for the project, before appealing for information from ex-prisoners, prison workers and anyone with knowledge of the institution.

“Our main aims are to investigate the social impact of Barlinnie,” said Isabel.

“We’re looking at the social issues of 130 years go in Glasgow when the prison was built and what issues are causing crime in Glasgow today.

“Some of the research shows it’s astoundingly similar. Poverty, alcohol – all the same issues. Surely we should have solved these problems by now?”

Barlinnie accepted its first prisoners on August 15 1882 and has grown to be Scotland’s largest and most complex prison, which currently houses 1,220 inmates.

Theatre Nemo work within the prison’s high dependency unit, helping people with mental health problems and rehabilitating them through creative activities such as Japanese drumming, script writing and art.

Isobel recognised that, by scrutinising Barlinnie’s history, she and fellow Theatre Nemo project workers could unearth valuable lessons about rehabilitating prisoners.

“We work with people with severe mental health conditions who have had a hell of a life, as awful a life as you can imagine,” said Isabel.

“They have to battle against the odds.

“A big focus of ours is what happens to the prisoners when they get out of prison, because inside they are getting help and support and then they go out to nothing.

“When they leave, most of them say they are going to try and don’t want to go back to jail, but it doesn’t work out like that because life is so chaotic for them.

“They don’t have any money or housing and they are trying to keep away from the people they have been hanging about with that ended up them getting into trouble in the first place, so they are alone.”

Students from Smithycroft Secondary School, which sits directly adjacent to Barlinnie, will help Theatre Nemo by examining the building’s history between 1914 and 1945.

Researchers from Aberdeen University and criminology experts from Glasgow Caledonian University will investigate the causes of crime and the city’s social environment through the ages.

The team will also explore the resources available for offenders within prison over the last 130 years, the rehabilitation programmes that existed and how these compare to today’s prisons.

“We want to know what help people used to get in prison, what educational resources did they have? How do we change people’s perceptions of prisoners?” said Isabel.

“It’s to help people understand that if we don’t help, encourage and support people in prison they’ll keep going back to prison when they get out.”

Although the public are more familiar with grim corners of Barlinnie’s history – the ten prisoners that were hanged there or the ‘slopping out’ method of using a bucket as a toilet in cells – this project will focus on the positive improvements made in prison life and the opportunities now open to offenders.

Theatre Nemo hope to hold a display of artwork within Barlinnie at the end of the project and later tour different Scottish venues with their film and findings.

“We want to take our film to show to policy makers, to people outside who don’t understand,” said Isabel.

“We’re not making excuses for criminals, we’re looking for causes. What happened? If we don’t figure it out we will keep going through the same things.

“There’ll just be new prisoners and new prisons. We need to help and support people.

“They need to do things to take their mind off things so that they don’t slip into that mentality of ‘There’s nothing to do so I will join a gang again’.

“We are giving them social skills and engaging them once they are out of prison and getting them socialising with different friends once they are out of prison.

“We need to stop offending from happening, then we’ll stop having victims and we’ll have a healthy, happy Scotland.”

Do you have any information or stories about Barlinnie that could contribute to the project? Contact Isabel here.