Prison Arts Foundation's 'Inspiring Change' project at the MAC

Prison Arts Foundation's 'Inspiring Change' project at the MAC

13 Feb 2015 - By Stephen McIlwaine

The Pilgrim Trust have contributed funding towards the continued work of the Prison Arts Foundation. PAF work with some of Northern Irelandís most vulnerable and marginalised groups. In partnership with the MAC, PAF aim to continue and grow with the launch of a new and innovative project 'Inspiring Change'.

‘Inspiring Change’ at the MAC

‘Inspiring Change’ is an innovative new project that aims to work with some of Northern Ireland’s most vulnerable and marginalised groups of people to give them new skills, renewed self-confidence and support at a pivotal point in their lives. This project will work with 12 women who are offenders and or ex-offenders, over the course of three months to help them explore new, creative outlets through dance, drama, music, visual art and literature and will be led in partnership with the Prison Arts Foundation. It seeks to give participants new creative and capacity skills and long lasting, enduring benefits such as greater self-confidence and strives to make participants feel more included and valued members of society, and their city’s cultural landscape.

Who we are and what we do

Prison Arts Foundation                                                                                                                                                        

The Prison Arts Foundation (PAF) was founded as a charitable trust in November 1996, following extensive discussions between our main stakeholders; the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS); the Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI); the Arts Council for Northern Ireland (ACNI); the Community Relations Council (CRC) and the Community Arts Forum (CAF).  The Prison Arts Foundation has for the last 18 years been in the unique position to ‘champion the arts’ within Northern Ireland’s criminal justice system. 

Our aim is to release the creative potential of those serving custodial and community sentences, and those at risk of re-offending by engaging professional artists to teach, enthuse and give inspiration through writing, drama, visual art, craft and music.  Participation in our workshops is often the first step towards someone engaging more widely with formal education and vocational training services. For many, engagement is a vital part of their rehabilitation. 

Our vision is of a criminal justice system where PAF’s work is valued by all its stakeholders, is seen as crucial to the rehabilitation process and everyone has the opportunity to positively channel their creative energies and talents through the arts.  Our programmes increase access to the arts for those who have offended, many of whom come from socially and economically deprived backgrounds. The life skills they learn contribute to a healthy individual and a healthy society through a reduction in offending behaviour.  

Opened in 2012, the MAC is the flagship iconic cultural building in the heart of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. We deliver a year round, outstanding programme ranging from crowd pleasing theatre, dance, music and visual art to experimental new works. We promote accessibility and inclusion in everything we do and celebrate the very best in home grown arts as well as bringing the rest of the world to Belfast. Through the MAC we have created a neutral, safe space in Belfast’s city centre where the artistic and wider community can come together, regardless of belief or background. Our work has been recognised by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Belfast City Council, Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland for our innovative Learning and Participation programmes which have begun to play a leading role in the wider city and regional strategies of harnessing the arts as a mechanism for social and political change.

Our Learning and Participation programme is deliberately broad and aims to offer a variety of opportunities to be as inclusive as possible. We have a successful track record of working with schools, families, hard to reach communities and marginalised groups on an ongoing basis, such as projects working with those affected by mental health issues, suicide and self harm. ‘Inspiring Change’ is a new project in our stand of Learning and Participation which is central to our goal to be a vibrant and relevant arts space. We take seriously the fact that too many people in Northern Ireland think the arts are not for them, and this project is designed to break down this preconception by being fully inclusive, and designed with their specific needs in mind. Through this project we want to work with women who may feel marginalised due to their past, to build their skills and confidence and increase their opportunities for re-engaging with positive paths.

Need for the project
The project is influenced by the work of the ‘Inspire Women’s Project’; an organisation which uses a female-specific approach to helping women, many of whom have previously been in prison, to be rehabilitated back more fully into society. Many of these women face a range of significant challenges, not only in terms of their physical health and mental wellbeing, but also in dealing with family and relationship problems, employment and finances, whilst others face addiction problems. Although female offenders make up a relatively small amount in proportion to men, many require additional support to deal with the emotional and social aftermath of both custodial and community sentences, and can feel stigmatised and ostracised from society.

Work carried out by the Prison Arts Foundation and Inspire Women’s Project has proven that creative opportunities has had a twofold effect in not only helping these women understand their own, often complex needs, but has also helped them reduce their likelihood of reoffending, therefore helping to break the destructive cycle of incarceration.

Despite the excellent work of Inspire, impending funding cuts have led to the closure of the building which means that such creative and beneficial opportunities are being greatly reduced, much to the detriment of these already marginalised and ‘at-risk’ women. The future of their work however, has opened the door for our organisation to temporarily house the Inspire Women’s Project in the MAC and provide an interim home for the organisation. This will allow it to continue its good work, and also increase the opportunity for the MAC to have greater interaction with its participants and create a stronger partnership between two well respected organisations.

The Project
Over a period of twelve weeks, the project will work with twelve women, who have a history of offending, on a creative journey to engage and explore the arts. Participants will first be invited for a guided tour around the building, to familiarise themselves with the space, and to learn more about the project, and the work that we do. The women will then be invited to a ‘taster day’ as part of a  participant-led consultation process, where they will meet and chat with the MAC’s Learning and Participation Officer, to discover which themes and genres of creative work they would like to explore. Following up from this meeting, two facilitators will then be selected; one from the Prison Arts Foundation and one from the experienced MAC team. Both facilitators will work alongside the participants to help them communicate and express themselves to create their own individual pieces of work.

The project will also include a visit to attend a theatre production in the MAC by Primecut Productions, a theatre company with a reputation for producing award-winning, critically acclaimed professional theatre that challenges, provokes, inspires, entertains and enthrals. Included in this will be a pre-talk and a post show discussion, supported by facilitators, as well as the opportunity to meet members of the cast, for a Q&A session.

The MAC is aware that for many participants, this will be their first experience of being in a professional theatre, or visiting an art gallery, and they may feel uneasy about participating in a new activity that they feel might not be ‘right for them’. However, this project seeks to actively demystify these arts experiences, particularly for those people who have never had an opportunity to engage in the arts. In doing so, the MAC hopes to make these women feel at home both in its premises, and as part of a wider society, with the end result leading to participants being more confident, more content in themselves and more inspired to create their own work.

If you are interested in what the women are doing, updates and images on the progress of the project will be posted at a later date.

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