I went down to Port Laoise recently, to deliver some paintings to the Dunamaise Arts Centre, and I met up with my old friends there, from Port Laoise Prison. They were teachers, I might add, not inmates, and they reminded me of the time when I was teaching art there, a few years ago.
Port Laoise Prison is a maximum security prison and there are soldiers on the roof with live ammunition and such and you have to go through all sorts of searches and security gates to get to your students – but I must say I never felt any concern or hostility while I was working there. In general, the prisoners are more relaxed because they have an interest and the classes break the monotony of the day for them. When the prisoners are relaxed, the guards are more relaxed – so it makes life easier for everyone. It’s a very unnatural situation to have hundreds of men – prisoners and guards – living in close proximity like that, and tensions can rise over small things. So the teachers make a significant difference to the situation and I always admired their dedication and patience.
What really annoys me is the people who give out about the prisons, those “lock ’em up and throw away the key” merchants. I think it’s a total waste of taxpayers’ money to put people in prison and not do anything to rehabilitate them. For some prisoners, prison education is the first chance they have of seeing possibilities outside of their own narrow world. More often than not, they wouldn’t have had much of an education in their youth, because of circumstances beyond their control. For them, this is their first chance of imagining a different, better future for themselves. If teachers can enable that, then they are doing us all a service.