When I was in my early twenties I was involved for a number of years in a group called Radical Alternatives to Prison based in London. I had been greatly influenced by my sociology lecturer Stan Cohen (1942-2013) who taught and researched on prisons, on the long term effects of incarceration, and, on prisoners’ rights. One of the prison writers whom I respected was Jimmy Boyle who was given a life sentence in 1967 and whose background and descent into gangster violence and conviction for a murder that he denied is documented in his work A Sense of Freedom. The redemption that he experienced at the end of that book came in the form of acceptance into Barlinnie Special Unit a ground breaking facility for violent lifers open from 1973-1994 where the inmates were given a certain amount of autonomy, and, as the aim was rehabilitation they were introduced to the arts and different activities as well as group therapy and time for reflection. It’s where Jimmy Boyle, once known as the most violent man in Scotland, discovered that he could sculpt. His book of his time there is more or less a diary and is called The Pain of Confinement. One diary extract is written on 25th May 1977 about four years after he had transferred to the wing:
‘What about my yearning to be free? I visualise walking in the country, seeing green fields, birds singing, the horizons far in the distance – as far as the eye can see. Oh to walk the streets full of people. To look at my hand and see the clasped hand of my girlfriend, to look at her face and eyes. These are the dreams of the incarcerated. I want so much to taste freedom because for the first time in my life I will be able to appreciate it. I desire the world beyond the walls.’
What Jimmy Boyle and others who were in the unit have spoken about is how tough it was to confront themselves, and rather than maintain their violent defensive state begin to see who they really were. Jimmy Boyle talks about it in terms of sculpting:
‘What about the expression of my soul? The hammer and chisel that sculpts the stone from the tenement buildings of my past into a new form for the future. A transformation that is comparative to my own. The ingrained pollution that covers the stone is shorn. I take it in this filth covered condition, devote the time to it and give it another life.’
He speaks of his writing as threads of life brought to the surface and a way of understanding what we are doing.
‘Feelings. Those parts that we all try to hide from each other. The shame, the jealousy, the guilt and insecurity. Our inferiority. Who can put up the most convincing mask to hide the inner turmoil? It’s all about chasing illusions that don’t really exist. It’s like hating some bastard yet when he dies we realise he wasn’t so bad after all.’
(Jimmy Boyle was set free in November 1982. He’s now a world renowned sculptor living abroad away from the unforgiving British press. In a recent interview he said: ‘I ask myself what was that all about? All that violence, theft, anger and hatred for territorial gain when in fact none of us own anything.’ And that insight too is freedom.)