None of this is easy

A couple of days ago, I gave a lecture about art in criminal justice contexts. It’s not a field in which I have deep expertise. My experience of running art workshops in prison dates from the 1980s and early 1990s, and took place in relatively good conditions. Since then I’ve been inside only to see the work that others have done, and talk to those involved. That work is among the most difficult, serious and important I have ever seen. Those who dedicate their lives to it, including the audience for my lecture, know that better than anyone. They live its tensions and dangers on a daily basis, and see also its triumphant capacity to transform lives. They do it with their eyes open, believing that all of us are capable of change, however long and painful the journey might be.

When I was preparing the talk, I was contacted by Tom Magill of ESC Films, who I first met more than 20 years ago, when I worked with community artists in Belfast. Originally an offshoot of the English Shakespeare Company, ESC has focused on cross-community work rooted in the theatre practice of Augusto Boal and the ideas of Paolo Freire. (Their influence on European community artists is described in A Restless Art.) ESC moved into filmmaking in 2003, and shortly after began working in HMP Maghaberry. Here, in Tom’s words, is an outline of how they produced a version of Macbeth in a maximum security prison:

The Assistant Governor wanted to engage ‘non-conforming prisoners’ (though the prison service no longer use that term), primarily lifers on a basic regime, stripped of all privileges. Many were taking drugs or assaulting staff, and not engaged in prison education or work. I proposed film making as a way to engage those men. We made a short film, then a documentary about the impact of imprisonment on families. Then I pitched making a modern adaptation of Macbeth. The men were skeptical. One thought Shakespeare was a fishing rod; others rejected him because he was ‘English’ a ‘snob’ and a ‘fruit’. Eventually they listened to my short summary of Macbeth and agreed it was a great story to tell in a prison context. So, we began to assemble a cast and crew. The film took two years to make, including six weeks filming. The budget we raised was £50k. The cast and crew of Mickey B included 42 prisoners, half of them life sentence prisoners. A quarter of the cast and crew had Republican or Loyalist paramilitary backgrounds; one was a former member of the security forces. During six weeks filming, we had no incidents of violence. None of the cast or crew were charged with any offence whatsoever. Previously, one member of the cast, who plays a bookie in the film, would have been charged approximately 100 times per month. For their work on the film project, 15 men achieved an ASDAN Active Citizenship Award.

Tom Magill, ESC Films

Mickey B is a shocking film principally because it restores a terrible reality to a play about violence and murder. It faces with unflinching honesty acts that filmmakers more commonly turn into entertainment. It is grim. But it is also artistically compelling and, as described in the documentary about the making of the film, a beginning of change for the men who took part. Not an easy change, for them or those who know them, or for society at large; not always completed or successful, but unquestionably a necessary change. You can see extracts from Mickey B on ESC Films’ Vimeo page, and copies of the film and the educational resources produced to support it are available to buy here.

None of this is easy – not doing the work, seeing it, or thinking about it. Mostly, it’s easier to put the criminal justice system out of sight and out of mind. Even if that were right, it isn’t possible. There are are doors between these worlds through which people constantly pass – in both directions. Art is a resource that can help those forced to cross those boundaries to think about themselves, their actions and their membership of what the criminologist, Fergus McNeill, describes as ‘a moral community’. None of this is easy; but it is profoundly important.


As well as Mickey B, I referred to several other art in criminal justice projects during my lecture, including:

And if you want to know more about art in prisons, one of the best places to start is the National Criminal Justice Arts Alliance.


Finally, a word about Prospero’s Prison, ESC Films’ latest project, for which they’re trying to taise money now. It deals with forgiveness and the legacy of violence: there’s a beautiful, moving teaser that shows a very different side of their work.

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