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Creative Arts and the Cultural Politics of Penal Reform:

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Journal of Scottish Criminal Justice Studies Volume 20 2010 

Creative Arts and the Cultural Politics of Penal Reform:

the early years of the Barlinnie Special Unit,  1973-1981 

Mike Nellis

Glasgow School of Social Work, University of Strathclyde   


      The Special Unit which was operational in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison between 1973 and 1996 was and remains a significant milestone in Scottish penal policy, which has been ambivalently remembered. To some it was a legendary institution, which, through the use of creative arts enabled the rehabilitation of some of Scotland’s most violent prisoners, particularly Jimmy Boyle, but which, after his departure in 1980, became a mere shadow of its former self, and a lost opportunity to reform the wider penal system. To others its early years  represented a moment when penal authority was inadvertently ceded to critical and manipulative prisoners – Boyle especially - and their unduly liberal champions in the social work and arts communities, which was fortunately retrieved, never allowed to happen again and considered best forgotten. In between, some late-in-the-day comment and research quietly accepted that the Unit had brought about a useful reduction in the erstwhile violent behaviour of its inmates, but mostly without capturing what was truly “special” about it (Whatmore 1987, 1990; Stephen 1988; Cooke 1997). Thus to many, perhaps most, contemporary practitioners in the Scottish penal system the Special Unit has faded from memory, and may never even have been known to them. This paper is simultaneously an exposition and celebration of the Special Unit’s extraordinary early achievements, a conscious act of remembrance and a demand that it be given a due, informed and prominent place in the Scottish penal heritage.

      If the Special Unit’s story is known at all, it is more through the testimony of prisoners who experienced it (Boyle 1977; 1985; Collins 1997; 2000) than through any official (or professional) account.  Important and influential as the prisoner  testimonies have been, they do not entirely explain how the creative arts came to underpin and sustain the Unit in its controversial early period and their take on the penal and political context in which this occurred, while never less than astute, is necessarily subjective. A more rounded, but still essentially corroborative, view is better achieved by the book which a Glasgow art gallery director and an art therapist (Carrell and Laing 1982) edited to celebrate the first eight years of the Unit’s “evolution though its art”. It contained thoughtful comment from a wide range of people involved, including prisoners – although the Scottish Office shortsightedly forbade contributions from some serving prison staff – as well as vividly depicting some of the art work produced there. The book is as unique as the Unit itself, a landmark in Scottish ‘penological’ writing which ought to have been – and, alongside the offender accounts, ought still to be - required reading for all subsequent generations of prison staff and criminal justice social workers.

      This paper draws extensively on that book, focusing on the same formative period in the Unit’s history, and seeks to show (again) how creative arts briefly but spectacularly became integral to the concept of offender rehabilitation and, by dint of that, to the always “cultural” politics of penal reform in Scotland – a politics inseparable from the fixed and shifting senses of what a country thinks it is, what its people are like and what they aspire to  be.   

Creating The Barlinnie Special Unit

      In Scotland, in the aftermath of the abolition of capital punishment in the 1960s, “special units” developed to deal with particularly intractable prisoners, mostly long-sentence lifers perceived as having little or nothing to lose by violence towards staff – but in two very different ways (Coyle 1987). The Scottish Home and Health Department (1971) Working Party  report - Treatment of Certain Male Long term Prisoners and Potentially Violent Prisoners  - emerged from official anxieties about escalating violence between staff and a handful of very particular prisoners who had demonstrably not been rendered manageable by the available repressive sanctions  – beatings by squads of baton-armed prison officers, and/or  solitary incarceration, often naked, for protracted periods in the prison-within-a-prison of “the cages” – the  first form of “special unit” - in HMP Porterfield, Inverness. The Working Party proposed a new kind of unit. Influenced particularly by Maxwell Jones’ and Dennie Briggs’ conception of a therapeutic community (Jones 1968; Whitley, Briggs and Turner 1972) it was intended for up to ten prisoners, to have an explicitly psychiatric orientation, to make use of group counseling and drug therapy and to create a therapist/patient relationship between staff and prisoners1. Such was the crisis of violence in Scottish prisons, it had the full personal backing of the then (Conservative) Undersecretary of State for Scotland, Alick Buchanan-Smith, and the Controller of Scottish Prisons, Alex Stephen, both of whom were keen to import any lessons from the Unit into the wider prison system.  

      Peter Whatmore was appointed Consultant Psychiatrist to the Unit, visiting on a thrice weekly basis. Links were established at the outset with the Douglas Inch Centre for Forensic Psychiatry and Ian Stephen, its Principal Clinical Psychologist developed a lasting association with the Unit. Prison staff were volunteers, specially trained over 11 weeks in therapeutic techniques, although individual temperament remained important. Prisoner numbers were to be too small to make reliance on traditional prison work, other than routine cleaning duties, viable (although unpaid “work therapy” was integral to Maxwell Jones’ conception of a therapeutic community), and from the start there was some uncertainty among all those in charge as to what the daily routine might consist of. Jones had experimented successfully with psychodrama, but not the creative arts as such, and  “in the initial planning of the Special Unit, the arts had not been considered, at least not more than as a leisure pursuit for the occasional interested prisoner” .... The arts do not have a high priority in the thinking of penologists” (Laing 1982:56/57)2.

      The Special Unit opened in February 1973 in D wing of HMP Barlinnie, a Victorian institution which otherwise mostly housed 1000 adult remand and short sentence prisoners. Architecturally, the Unit was unprepossessing, consisting of a foyer, two hallways, ten cells (some on an upper cat-walk), a kitchen, the governor’s office, an officer’s meeting room, a surgery, the community meeting room and several rooms which were subsequently to be identified by the arts that took place in them -  the wood workshop, the painting studio and the sculpture studio, the latter having originally been designated the solitary confinement cell for recalcitrant prisoners, but never used. There was also a courtyard, where the sculpting of larger pieces was eventually to take place, a small garden and a greenhouse.

      Three of the first five3 prisoners, Edinburgh-born Ben Conroy, Glaswegians Larry Winters and Jimmy Boyle – the latter two serving life for manslaughter and murder respectively - came from prisons in the far north of Scotland (Porterfield and Peterhead), where they had frequently been involved in violent confrontations with staff, accruing additional custodial sentences as a result, and experiencing long spells of solitary confinement in “the cages”.  Boyle’s and Winter’s trial for their participation in a particularly savage fight with officers in Porterfield in December 1972 was in fact still pending at the time of their transfer; the excessive courtroom security when it occurred reflected a police view that they were far too dangerous for, and undeserving of, the liberal regime of the new Unit. They each got six years.  Boyle, aged 29 when he entered the Unit, already had a press profile as one Scotland’s most fearsome, violent criminals, and had indeed done much to justify it, but against the odds he was to become the Unit’s most spectacular – and challenging - success.  

The Special Unit in Practice

      The Unit inevitably began in an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion: despite commitment to trying something new, prison staff and prisoners carried into the situation labels and expectations with which they were associated in the mainstream prison system. Some prison officers were also nurses, and the prisoners, to whom the informal, relaxed regime was undeniably disorienting, worried that they would be subdued by drugs and/or that the Unit was merely a step towards incarceration in the state mental hospital at Carstairs (where some of the Unit staff had indeed trained). One particular prison officer - Ken Murray, a member of the Executive Committee of the Scottish Prison Officers Association (SPOA), who had been on the Working Party that proposed the Special Unit  - took the lead in challenging the prisoners’ (and his colleagues’) perceptions. One particular prisoner – Jimmy Boyle, as it happened  - responded in kind to the trust Murray showed, and to the hopes he had for the Unit. Kay Carmichael (1982a), a University of Glasgow social work lecturer who observed the Unit’s development, said of them that they  

built a bridge of their friendship and trust in each other, which made possible communication between the staff group and the prisoners’ group. These two men became the significant figures in the drama that was to follow. …… The others, the Governor, the psychiatrist, the range of specialists and friends who worked in and around the Unit, interesting and helpful though they were, never functioned as more than bit players. The action was between prisoners and staff, and that, without intermediaries, was and is the way it has to be (Carmichael 1982: 22).  


      Boyle (1985:11) himself agreed that prisoners and staff “talking together” was “the single most important factor of the Unit”, and while never subscribing to a fully psychiatric view of how the Unit functioned, regarded Peter Whatmore as a positive influence and formed a good relationship with him. In view of the significance that creative arts were subsequently to have there (which prison staff rarely initiated or participated in, other than helping to organize activities and events) this may seem to underplay the role of those who fostered the prisoners’ artistic endeavours, but it is a useful reminder that the Unit was first and foremost a therapeutic community, however tentatively and ambivalently. Mutual hostilities between once antagonistic groups diminished - though there were awkward flashpoints along the way - and the milieu created by the changed relationships between prison staff and prisoners was critical in enabling individual prisoners to change. The regular community meetings, in which staff and prisoners learned painfully to communicate honestly with each, to see through each other’s eyes, to express vulnerability, to confront unacceptable behavior and resolve conflicts, to ponder past allegiances and to form new interpersonal alliances were the basis of all the other changes that occurred in the Unit: the transformation in “daily living”, and the emergence of an environment which “encourage[d] flexibility, spontaneity, confidence and tolerance” were the seedbed of its creativity (Carmichael 1982: 23). Carmichael further suggests that the community meetings and general ethos were perhaps “even more liberating for staff than prisoners”, and some of them, Ken Murray and Malky McKenzie in particular, learned to “ask questions of their administrative masters and senior management”, no easy thing in a bureaucracy in which “promotion prospects are dependent  on conformity” (idem). 

   The Unit was intentionally hospitable to visitors, beginning with extended visits from families and friends, mostly on weekends, later during the week, without the barrier of the glass screen which had divided them in mainstream prison settings. This practice was abused: drink and drugs were smuggled in (as they were in some degree in most prisons), but when the press picked this up, it was sensationalised and exploited by the Unit’s critics, creating problems for the prison authorities in publicly legitimating the Unit’s work (Dowle 1982). Alex Stephen himself visited the Unit regularly, however, the first time there had been such direct contact or such open discussion about the ills of the prison system between a senior civil servant and serving prisoners, and, crucially, he supported what the Unit became, more troublesome as that was from what the original Working Party had envisaged.

      As arts activities became important – the way this occurred is explained below - artists of various kinds also became regular visitors, and above and beyond their “professional” contribution, they provided, as Dr. Sarah Trevelyan, a young psychiatrist who herself became a regular visitor to the Unit from 1978 noted, a useful means of dispelling the secrecy which had traditionally surrounded prisons, and hidden their abuses (Boyle S 1982). A significant number of visitors were to form “a close relationship with the Unit or with individual residents” (Paterson 1982 52). They never acted in concert, or held a single view of the Unit, but individually they exemplified instances of achievement with which inmates were unfamiliar, providing  “a reflective surface upon which [they] might view themselves” and develop “aspects of [their] identity free from histories of offending in society and independent of allegiance to an offending culture” (idem).

      Therapeutic communities in penal settings – anomalous at the best of times - are exceptionally vulnerable to changes in their wider political environment (Jones 1968). Everyone in the Special Unit was aware that the Scottish Office, ever mindful of “public and political opinion …..might at any time, and without  disclosure of reasons, act to modify [the Unit’s] freedom and direction“ (Paterson 1982:52). Thus, when Alex Stephen was transferred to another post the two men who replaced him did not have the same sense of “ownership” of the Unit. When Ken Murray (who had become the most influential official in the Unit, far more so than the governor) was expelled from the Executive Committee of the SPOA for challenging criticisms of the Unit by its general secretary, the Unit lost a strong voice in a body still much in need of reform  – and in 1979, after a series of clashes with senior management, Murray himself was transferred out of the Unit to HMP Low Moss, and a “proper” official hierarchy imposed. Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that “the residents feared for the survival of the Unit” (Paterson 1982:54) and were wary of what they were being expected to invest in.

      A consultant clinical psychologist in the Unit, Maxwell Paterson (1982:55), was nonetheless adamant that most prisoners did want what the Unit offered. Acknowledging that in the community meetings and group therapy sessions the prisoners did “identify their own sense of inadequacy and need” and did not “present their histories with pride”, he also understood why, in such a politically volatile situation, the task of personal transition was made doubly difficult. The prisoners were already “dealing with paradox”, he wrote, each individual seeking “to reconcile a former identity, which is not to be denied, with an emergent identity - the same, yet another”, without being beset by  uncertainty about the Unit’s future.

      Not all prisoners benefited equally or in the same way: “observation would suggest”, wrote Paterson (1982:52), “that for some the experience has remained a game while for others there has been a movement from a peripheral, questioning response to a centre of commitment and personal  representation of the ethos”. After eleven months, uncomfortable with the psychological pressures in the Unit, Ben Conroy (1982) transferred back to an ordinary prison at his own request. Duncan Bathgate, a relative newcomer, was transferred out after only four months for attacking another prisoner in March 1976 – one of only two serious assaults in the Unit’s entire, twenty three year history (Cooke 1997). Larry Winters was a deeply intelligent man, sporadically creative, but too lost to prescription drugs (for depression) to benefit fully from the Unit’s approach. Tragically and traumatically for all, he died alone in his cell of a (probably accidental) barbiturate overdose in September 1977, the drugs having been smuggled in by another prisoner. Both these incidents intensified press criticism of the Unit’s lax regime - particularly, but not only in The Daily Record - but the definitive and lasting controversy about the Unit was less do with specific organisational failings, and more to do with incontrovertible evidence of its success in transforming a man of violence into someone quite different (Dowle 1982).

      The opening of Jimmy Boyle’s play The Hard Man, co-written with Tom McGrath (McGrath and Boyle 1977) at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, and the publication of his autobiography A Sense of Freedom (Boyle 1977) by Canongate raised media debate to a new level. The book was a lucid account of the ways in which the enduring poverty of post-war Glasgow’s slums bred a culture of extreme violence that was deeply appealing to young men for whom status and glamour were otherwise hard to come by. Far from challenging this violence when it had the opportunity to, Boyle showed from experience, imprisonment compounded and reinforced it – part of the problem of violence in Scotland, not – unless it took the form of the Special Unit, in which the book concluded  - the solution. Offenders had written books before (Broadhead 2006; Nellis 2010), but (in Scotland) none quite so violent or notorious as Boyle had been, or now as eloquent. Implied within its eloquence was a larger, unspoken question, how had modern Scotland’s welfare state, the egalitarian and educational traditions of which it was supposedly so proud, failed a man of such evident intelligence and talent, offered him so few prospects that he sank so early into crime and so effortlessly into savagery  - at least until now? And - more awkwardly  still, a question Boyle explicitly posed   -  how many more men (and boys) like him were still being failed? Although the book’s exposure of prison brutality was relatively new, overall, the novelty was less in the message than the messenger, around whom opinion polarized. The Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Teddy Taylor, for example, demanded to know why Boyle had been “allowed” to criticise the prison system. Even the fact that royalties from the book were used to set up the Gateway Exchange in Edinburgh to support ex-prisoners and young drug users  was insufficient to placate his detractors.

      There were other prisoners in the Unit whose artwork was rightly to be celebrated by Carrell and Laing (1982)  - Bob Brodie, Tom Galloway and Hugh Collins (the latter joined the Unit in early 1978, and published his own autobiography two decades later (Collins 1997)) -  but none had Boyle’s energy, charisma, artistic versatility  or his growing public profile as a critic of the penal system, and after A Sense of Freedom appeared – it was also filmed by Channel 4 in 1981 - it was inevitably around him that the purpose and legitimacy of the Unit would be most intensely debated.     

The Birth of Art in the Unit

      The single most important person in the establishment of creative arts in the Special Unit was Joyce Laing, a fine arts graduate who had subsequently trained as an art therapist, set up Scotland’s first art therapy department at the Ross Clinic in Aberdeen, and worked extensively in general and psychiatric hospitals, and in prison, with both young people and adults. The first governor invited her into the Unit a few months after it opened to provide weekly arts activities for the first five prisoners. Laing had no illusions about his modest intentions: “Any activity which was considered time-consuming would have been a welcome resource during the early months of what was still a very uncertain experiment”, she wrote: “That on this occasion it was art was probably incidental” (Laing 1982:57). For all that the men were polite and welcoming, she was immediately conscious of their suspicion of her as an artist and a woman, well aware of how unpromising an environment - artistically speaking - the Unit and its inmates were, but inwardly confident that in time the men’s manifestly “pent-up emotions ... would bubble to the surface and, if not negated by other factors, would result in some form of art” (idem. 58). Her initial efforts, over a period of weeks, to encourage the men to take up painting, drawing and sculpting were to no avail. The arts materials she left for them each week went untouched, frustrating her, so on one occasion she simply sat on the floor and modelled a head out of clay. One prisoner joined her, getting the feel of the clay, but not making anything. This was, however, the moment of breakthrough: 

On the following visit a few pieces of sculpture, mostly heads, had been made. Among them was once piece which completely captured my attention. It was the small model of a roughly fashioned figure crouched behind a few rods of wire which  surrounded the figure. It was titled Solitary, one of the first sculptures by Jimmy Boyle. This, I believe was the birth of the arts in the Special Unit. Jimmy Boyle had not only made the small sculpture, he was filled with enthusiasm over the possibilities the clay offered. Two parallel emotions were engulfing him; he was bursting with enthusiasm for ideas he wanted to try with this material which was new to him and he was also experiencing a new concept of the self: the former hard man spending his time working on art (Laing 1982: 58) 

      Several prisoners then took up clay modeling. Boyle showed particular talent and enthusiasm for it, quickly moved to carving stone and working metal, was taken up by some of the artists whom Laing introduced to the Unit, and reaped personal rewards. One such visitor, Richard Demarco, an eminent  Scottish arts impresario and Edinburgh gallery owner, arranged an exhibition of the Unit’s work (mostly Boyle’s) at the Edinburgh Festival in August 1974.  Boyle was officially allowed out of the Unit, under escort, to see it. He soon had his first commissions - stone heads of the Men of Jarrow  for the Bede Gallery in the north of England in 1975, a concrete Gulliver  for the Craigmillar Festival Society in Edinburgh in 1976.  In that same year he had a one man show in Edinburgh, and also at Glasgow’ leading modern arts venue, the Third Eye Centre on Sauciehall Street (with whose director, playwright Tom McGrath, he then came to write an autobiographical play (McGrath and Boyle 1977). Along side all this he was keeping a diary of events in the Special Unit, studying sociology and psychology, and writing an autobiography. He encouraged others to participate - Larry Winters, well read because of long years already spent in prison, wrote and read poetry and prose, which eventually achieved recognition in its own right, albeit posthumously (Winters 1979). “The advent of poetry reading and the pieces of sculpture appearing in the various rooms”, wrote Joyce Laing (1982: 59), “gave a college-like atmosphere to the Unit”.

      Artistic attention quickly turned to the drabness of the Unit environment itself  - iron bars and blank walls - and the idea of painting a large mural on the long wall opposite the cells emerged in a community meeting. A Glasgow street scene became the theme: “the result was not great artistic achievement yet it captured the magic of childhood memories”(idem: 59). Creative cell decoration ran parallel to this, augmented by donations of curtains and ornaments by friends and relatives - creating necessary private spaces where prisoners could gain respite from the pressures of communal living, and rest, work or study as the mood took them.

      In addition, a Unit magazine containing writing, poetry and drawings by both prisoners and visitors also developed, intended for distribution among the Unit’s supporters and in other prisons. The production of The Key in 1974/75 - the symbolism of the name they chose for it was not lost on the prisoners - actively involved both staff and inmates. It did circulate widely among the Unit’s supporters, but the Prisons Department forbade its distribution to other prisons. The Key ran to only three editions, the last in November 1975.

      The many eminent “arts” visitors to the Unit were central to the consolidation of its creative ethos and its reputation as a Scottish penal innovation. Impressed from the start, convinced that even deeper immersion in creative arts would further aid the men’s rehabilitation and hopeful that the public value of art itself would be enhanced in this way, they spread word about the Unit in circles where prison was not much mentioned. Some of the visitors were international: a second mural, Wall of Neglect, was done with the assistance of Beth Shadur, a Chicago muralist, depicting capitalist exploitation in the Third World (Carrell and Laing 1982:40). Simply because most of the prisoners could not leave the Unit to visit theatres and galleries, music, dance and drama were imported into it, a conscious effort to sustain and enlarge the prisoners’ artistic horizons (Laing 1982:60). A proposal for a 3-day arts festival in the Unit emerged out of this, which, after some delays caused by ongoing uncertainty about the Unit’s future, took place in September 1979.  Among the events were poetry readings by Edwin Morgan, music by Alan Cameron (and by psychologist Ian Stephen), and performances by the Glasgow Citizens and the Easterhouse Theatre Companies   (Laing 1982: 61). The festival was opened by the then Secretary of the Scottish Home and Health Department, whose “opening remarks sealed official approval of the festivities and brought people of varied backgrounds closer together [and] also strengthened belief in this ‘special’ penal unit” (Laing 1982:61). Other arts events subsequently took place in the Unit, while in 1980 the Third Eye Centre curated a comprehensive exhibition of The  Special Unit, Barlinnie Prison: its evolution though its art, accompanied by a book of the same name edited by Christopher Carrell (Tom McGrath’s successor) and Joyce Laing.     

      This “evolution” was unique. At no other point in Scottish (or British) penal history had a penal institution become so identified with the arts, or the rehabilitation of prisoners so tied to creative expression. Furthermore, the visible support and encouragement of significant individuals in the Scottish arts community gave the somewhat nebulous penal ideal of rehabilitation a tangibility which it often lacked, even among people who subscribed to the principle. And although “arts” had not been part of the plan, this unexpected development  gave those penal officials who did want to maintain the Unit some ammunition to do so. As the Unit’s clinical psychologist put it: “The early introduction of art materials and the un-enforced development of the Unit as a studio for the encouragement of the arts had the greater significance for the successful passage of the Unit through its early crises. It [gave] the Unit a purposeful and distinctive identity” (Paterson 1982:54).

      Important as “the arts” were to what the Barlinnie Special Unit became, it is important to recognize that it did in fact function as a therapeutic community, even if not quite as Maxwell Jones envisaged them. Had it not been for its distinctive “ambience” - the quality of daily living, increased ties to family and friends, openness to other visitors, educational opportunities (Stephen 1982), and above all  the community meetings from which a common ethos emerged that (more or less) bound everyone’s behaviour -  the creative arts may never have flourished there. Joyce Laing fully understood the importance of the Unit’s loose and flexible, relatively unmanaged structure in this respect:   

That the Unit was allowed to evolve without the limitations of time-tables, conventional routines or even all the usual prison rulings, undoubtedly saved its existence. Had the arts been programmed in as an educational pursuit not one of the inmates in th[o]se early days, would have agreed to embark on such a course. Any attempt to set up a teaching situation would have been viewed with the distaste that all the inmates had come to associate with their previous school experiences. The fragile embryo of creativity had to be left to grow at its own pace. It should not be overlooked that the Prisons Department  did not insist, at this early and vital stage in the Special Unit’s life, on pre-designed curricula or planned requisitions for equipment or art materials. This relaxed approach on how the inmates used their time was an important one, for it protected the precarious first steps of creativity. (Laing 1982: 57/58)   

Creativity and Rehabilitation

      In post-war Britain (and in the USA), parallel to the growth of the therapeutic community movement, there had been much intelligent (mostly psychotherapeutic) reflection on the relationship between creativity, aggression and personal development (Schneider 1950; Westman 1961; Koestler 1964; Storr 1972; Liebmann 2000). As both artist and psychotherapist, steeped in such thinking, Joyce Laing was open to the possibility that, with some individuals, creative activity in a place like the Special Unit could sometimes go beyond mere therapy, vital as that was to personal healing and wellbeing, to genuine artistic expression which communicated meaningful concepts and feelings to others. The one could segue into the other. Laing could also skillfully nurture creative stirrings in people, even those professing no talent for artistic expression, in a way that other workers in the Unit could not, and she was, furthermore, a respected member of a Scottish creative arts community whose support for what was to happen in the Unit – outwith traditional penal reform networks - might not otherwise have been tapped. “There are three ways the arts can be used in any institutional setting”, she wrote,   

firstly as a pleasurable time filling occupation, secondly as en educational pursuit both in practical and theoretical terms, and thirdly as a living expression of thought, emotion and portrayal of images from the subconscious. The first two ways provide obvious benefits. Yet the arts will not engender change or growth for the individual, without the third way, which is the spontaneous expression of the inner psyche (Laing 1982: 57) .      

      The therapeutic and artistic aspects of the work produced in the Unit – and the often fine line between them – were regularly validated by the many artists and critics who visited the Unit, and commended at the fourteen external exhibitions of the Unit’s work in the 1973-81 period, (which included one at the Venice Biennale (Carrell and Laing 1982: 127). Cordelia Oliver, another fine arts graduate, a director of Glasgow’s Third Eye Centre and The Guardian’s (and former Herald’s) art critic in Scotland, commented astutely on the prisoner’s work, seeing the prisoner’s art primarily as expressions of recent or ongoing penal experiences, of solitary confinement and sexual frustration, but with potential beyond that.  Thus, she described Bob Brodie’s small clay models as needing “little explanation simply because they are immediately accessible, eloquent of whatever situation Brodie is trying to express”, and Tom Galloway’s primitive figures simply as “a cri de coeur, an attempt to maintain sanity in an alien environment”, (Oliver 1982a 91; 1982b.:103). Somewhat simplistically, she perceived the prisoners past proclivity to violence in terms of thwarted creativity; while this seriously underplayed the historical, structural and cultural factors underpinning violent criminality in Scotland it led her to the view that, pragmatically, there was “excellent sense in the theory [of diverting] the energy behind the overpowering need for violent behaviour into legitimate creative activity, using paint or clay or hammer and chisel on stone (Oliver 1982c:61). 

      Writing of Hugh Collins, Oliver noted the “inexpertness” of his early paintings and drawings, even his poetry, and suggested that they “amount[ed] to little more than a safety valve for himself” which helped him deal with violent and suicidal feelings within himself, and to understand the damage and humiliation that imprisonment had inflicted on him (Oliver 1982d:81). A “turning point” occurred in 1977/78, when, in his own words: “I was beginning to look at my own isolation, and realised that prison staff were just as isolated and damaged as I was by the system”. Oliver felt that this incipient empathy, kindled before Collins entered the Unit, was quickened by immersion in drawing, painting and sculpture, and of his sculpture she said presciently that it was “in a class by itself so far as the Special Unit is concerned” (idem).   

The Fate of the Unit

            As if events in the Special Unit had not been extraordinary enough, a relationship developed between Jimmy Boyle and Sarah Trevelyan while she was working in the Unit, and they married in January 1980. In March Boyle reluctantly transferred out of the Special Unit to HMP Saughton as part of a planned release process. He, and the many people convinced of his complete rehabilitation would have preferred his release direct from the Unit’4. He finally left prison on life licence in November 1982, having served his full 15 year tariff (the additional custodial sentences being deemed concurrent). The Special Unit continued in existence for a further sixteen years, and, initially, still did useful work, but with a lower public profile. This paper is not concerned with the processes which led eventually to its closure in 1996 (Cooke 1997; Jeffrey 2009), but notes that, in any case, after Murray and Boyle (and indeed most of the original staff group), had left a certain dynamism was lost (Collins 1992). Apart from Collins’ sculpting, the Unit’s later artwork was more akin to that of a traditional prison education department, and it functioned more like the modest therapeutic community that it had been envisaged as. Walter Davidson, who continued for a while as senior officer in the Unit, wrote of this without apparent regret: 

…  the Unit of today and the Unit of six or seven years ago is a day and night situation. There aren’t the same emotional involvements, people by and large have become more professional in their jobs and you have a nucleus of staff and inmates who have been there for sufficient time to settle down (Davidson 1982:48) 

      While Murray’s - and especially Boyle’s - departure eased the Unit’s relationship with the Prison Department, opinion has inevitably varied as to whether the ending of their joint charismatic leadership was a good or bad thing for the remaining and subsequent residents. Maxwell Jones (1968) had always counselled against charismatic leadership in therapeutic communities, and took steps to avoid his own leadership becoming so, to preserve a democratic ethos. That was not in fact what was restored (or created) by Boyle’s and Murray’s departure (and arguably never fully can be in a prison). Hugh Collins (1999), befriended and mentored by Boyle, (although always touchy about being seen as too like him), struck a more despondent note than Davidson:  

After Jimmy Boyle’s transfer the place deteriorated. People think I should keep things going but they just don’t realize how much of a vacuum he has left. Jimmy had Ken, Malky and the staff to support his efforts. That’s all changed now. No one is interested (Collins 1997:148).


      Outside the Unit, earlier policy ambitions were reigned in too. The Working Party which had first recommended it had anticipated that if it was “successful it may indicate the way in which the penal system should be developed in future” (Scottish Home and Health Department 1971). Largely because of the controversy the Unit aroused and the departures of its early champions, Buchanan-Smith and Stephens, not to mention Murray and Whatmore (who retired in 1980), this aspiration had been vanquished by the end of the decade. This is not to say that, by then, there were not other, separate, modernising forces at work in the Scottish Prison Service – there were (a rising, younger generation of reform-minded managers), and these helped to keep the Unit alive despite the controversy - but one senior Prison Service official (unnamed) who expressed doubts about the Unit in late 1979 did so with ill-disguised derision: 

We do not really see the need for them. .... Just because certain prisoners have gone to the Special Unit and appear to have responded to that sort of regime does not mean that there are many more prisoners in the system who would benefit from that sort of regime (quoted in McClintock 1982:10: emphasis added).    

      The studied scepticism of this remark is disconcerting. The Unit had not been independently evaluated, but it was hard to argue from the evidence available that it had not fulfilled its purpose of reducing violence. Of the nineteen prisoners (including twelve lifers) who had passed through it by 1981, eight remained there, five had been released, one was on a release programme, one (Winters) had died and four, including Jimmy Boyle, had returned to normal prisons (Scottish Information Office, quoted in Carrell and Laing 1982: 7). Perception of what the Unit had achieved, however, was invariably refracted through perceptions of Boyle. Mirroring Scottish opinion more generally, some penal administrators did not begrudge him his success, but others – like the unnamed official above -  did, seeing him less as someone who had been reformed by the system, and more as someone who had beaten the system.  

The Significance of Jimmy Boyle

      The man that Jimmy Boyle became in the 1970s was indubitably a product of the Special Unit environment, but it is just as true to say that the Special Unit environment was, in its early years, a product of him. The Unit gave him an opportunity for personal fulfillment that he would never otherwise have had – which he seized with both hands -  and gave him a platform from which he was able to challenge the more iniquitous aspects of the penal system. Always a natural leader, nothing in his background had prepared him – or the prison authorities, or indeed anyone else - for the particular transformation that occurred in him in the Special Unit. Born in 1944 into the poverty of the Gorbals, and inexorably drawn into thieving and gang culture, he was from the age of twelve onwards an inmate of various penal institutions – remand homes, approved schools and borstal (where he and Ben Conroy first became friends). As a young adult he became a vicious enforcer for protection rackets, served several prison sentences, and was prosecuted in two abortive murder trials (whose witnesses were terrorized into silence), before finally being sentenced in 1967 to life imprisonment, with a 15 year minimum tariff, for the murder of another criminal called William “Babs” Rooney, for not paying his “protection”. While never denying his past involvement in atrocious violence (although A Sense of Freedom may not have catalogued everything he did, or indeed, all the institutional abuse that was done to him, particularly as a teenager  -  shame perhaps being the reason in both cases), he did deny this murder, and has always done so5. In prison, Boyle never accepted the authority of prison staff, never saw them as fully human (anymore than they saw him), and fought them to a standstill at every opportunity, solo or in association with likeminded men from similarly harsh backgrounds. His fury knew no limits.

      Throughout the twentieth century, the most disadvantaged areas of Scottish cities had generated gang cultures and violent criminals, a phenomenon which had been an established object of journalistic and literary interest from the 1930s (McArthur and Long 1935: Burrowes 1998; Burgess 1998). Until Boyle, history had been destiny for hardmen6 from the Gorbals; prevailing Scottish, and especially Glaswegian, narratives allowed no positive outcomes for “villains” like him – they were either executed; or became elderly “crime boss” figures, evil to the end; died young by violence amidst their own kind; became burnt-out non-entities in early middle age or ended drunk in the gutter. They were not thought to have the “potential” to be otherwise. Even before he left prison, with his sculpting and writing, and his marriage to Sarah Trevelyan, Boyle had conspicuously broken the mould, in full view of a mesmerized Scottish media. Liberal, educated middle class Scotland mostly encouraged and appreciated him for having had the courage to change, for exposing the shameful brutality of “the cages”, for his manifest articulateness and intelligence, and, indeed, for his charm; almost from the start of his time in the Special Unit he was never without allies or champions, and the Scottish arts community were at the heart of that.

      There is no doubt that Boyle felt himself becoming an artist, and that he was taken seriously as one by other artists and critics. His early stone and metal sculptures were vivid and accessible expressions of thoughts and feelings that preoccupied him as a prisoner – about anger, survival, justice – and there is simply no denying the insight and eloquence, as early as 1974, with which he wrote about discovering beauty and the pleasure of creation, the realisation of how much of his life he had wasted, the joy that had been missing from it and the wrongs he had blindly done, as well as the burgeoning sense of concern to prevent  the next generation of young men like himself from making the same mistakes (Boyle 1982). Art was not all he experienced in the UnIt – education in social sciences was also vital  to his self-understanding - but in his particular case creating it and learning about it was part of what “improved” him. That a man from Boyle’s background should ever have encountered (at Richard Demarco’s gallery on one of his day releases) the German sculptor and performance artist Joseph Beuys (Boyle 1977: 257) – at the time  “the most influential figure in the European art world” (Hughes 1980:402) -  was emblematic of the changed milieu in which he moved7. Guardian art critic Caroline Tisdall (1974:6) was sufficiently impressed with Boyle’s insight into Beuys’ work (and with Boyle’s own work) that she dedicated her book on Beuys to him. 

      Nonetheless, what Boyle accomplished in the Special Unit also provoked anger and resentment, and the media debates about him brought – if not into the open, then closer to the surface - liminal assumptions about class, power, violence and masculinity in Scottish life – and, by dint of that, exposed some deep-rooted constraints on progressive penal reform. Opposition came from several quarters. Some was orchestrated by the Glasgow police and elements in the SPOA, for whom Boyle’s past crimes were simply too grave to justify the liberties he had been accorded. For Conservative MP Teddy Taylor, and the newspapers who supported his party, hostility to Boyle ran deeper than an engrained ideological preference for punishment over rehabilitation; the Special Unit violated their very conception of what a prison should be, and as a result prisoners, Boyle especially, seemed no longer to know their place. In this instance, the tabloid Labour press concurred: commenting on a sculpture in which Boyle invited society to think more imaginatively about crime and punishment, The Daily Record wrote contemptuously “Now why should a prisoner be addressing his mind to such problems?” (quoted in Dowle 1982:114).

      Historian Sydney Checkland (1981:132) observed that “the powerful moralism in Glasgow working class life” meant that “working class opinion certainly contains a strong element that finds it hard to forgive [Boyle] his violence on the ground that he was a victim of a vicious society, for they know the terror of such men”. True and important as this was, it neglected the equally powerful moralism embedded in Ken Murray’s socialist sensibility, as authentically working class as the traditions articulated by the Daily Record, but more informed and hopeful. Ken Murray was himself a very exceptional man, certainly a very exceptional prison officer, and had he not had the personal faith to believe that Boyle was still not beyond the reach of ordinary human decency and the courage to trust him, both their histories in the Unit may have been very different. It is to Boyle’s great credit that he always acknowledged that; he knew a good man when he saw one8

      While accepting that Boyle’s transformation did pose some difficult, but not insurmountable, questions about the tension between justice and rehabilitation, and some dilemmas even for well-meaning penal administrators, one must still conclude that even if he had been the Special Unit’s only success it would still have been worth it. Over and above his personal achievement, he publicly shattered an enduring and pernicious cultural stereotype, that of the vicious and incorrigible hard man, and (exactly as the Unit itself had intended to do) he made the case for civility and intelligence in penal treatment more effectively than any academic research could have done: he became the living proof of its worth. As it was, the Unit helped others too, who also benefited from Boyle’s example and leadership even as his reputation continually eclipsed them. While he undoubtedly had a network of supporters, and was not to be without influence in the future, it was clear even before he left prison in 1982 that some segments of Scottish society would never acknowledge the manifest changes in his behaviour, or recognize his talent, or, worse, would cynically treat both as mere camouflage for latent malevolence. In Glasgow, Boyle and the Special Unit could have become powerful icons in a city so keen to transcend its crime-ridden past and its violent image, but media-stirred reminders of what he had once been constantly obscured perceptions of who he had now become (Spring 1990). Notwithstanding his denial of the murder of which he was convicted, it was never the case that Boyle refused to admit remorse or regret for his past violence (Boyle 1977:251): what his critics wanted, however – more, it seemed, than signs of repentance9  - was a broken, penitential posture so abject that he would forever be shunned as someone indelibly stained by his violent acts, rather than respected, listened to and learned from as someone who had transcended and repudiated them.  

Conclusion: The Special Unit and the Penal Heritage

      Compared to those aspects of a county’s past around which a recognizable  “heritage” can be built, (art and culture, military achievement etc)  there are several reasons why the penal past rarely figures prominently in contemporary social memory10. At root, the less that registers in popular and professional memory about penal measures that have failed in the past, or at least not achieved much, the easier it is to continue doing the same old thing, to bestow an aura of innovativeness on them and perennially reintroduce them in new guises. Paradoxically, measures which have simultaneously been both successful and unduly challenging to established or emerging forms of penal practice, or to have exposed the contradictions, limits and inevitable mediocrity of penal systems, are also less likely to be officially commemorated. Such has been the fate – formally and officially - of the Barlinnie Special Unit overall, and especially of its early years. It is true that the Unit survived for sixteen years more despite the political embarrassment its early years caused the penal authorities (albeit in more muted form) - “famous [among academics and penal reformers, even abroad] but marginalized” in all other respects (King 1994:50) and eventually dwindling into insignificance. It is also true that Boyle’s high profile as a penal commentator in the 1980s, and A Sense of Freedom’s over two decade print-run, ensured that the Unit’s memory was kept alive – ambivalently -  for longer than might otherwise have been the case.

      A certain generation in Scotland, interested in arts and penal reform, have indeed remembered it well, grasped it for the success that it undoubtedly was, taken it to heart. However, it has never become totemic in the way, say, that its near-contemporary innovation, the Children’s Hearing System, did; it never came to signify the kind of penal enlightenment in which national pride could and should be invested. In truth, because of the embarrassment it had caused, discussion about it was dampened down - evidenced by the constraints on speaking about it imposed on Ken Murray and the Scottish Office’s unwillingness to co-operate fully with Carrell and Laing’s art book – and the lessons that might have been drawn from it, while never wholly disregarded, were never fully learned or owned either. Reflection on the value of creative arts in offender rehabilitation, and on the nature of desistance processes, did take place, but not in a sustained or deep enough way to last, despite the best efforts of supportive liberal journalists.  The implications of A Sense of Freedom for the reform of the Scottish school system – as great if not greater than its implications for the adult penal system – and the challenge it posed to complacency about the culture of violence in the west of Scotland were noted but not pursued. The subsequent, laudatory insider accounts of the Special Unit’s work (Whatmore 1987, 1990; Stephen 1988; Cooke 1989a, 1989b; 1997; Coyle 1989), did belatedly give it penological legitimacy, but none captured the tension or exuberance of life in the Unit as well as the contributors to Carrell and Laing’s book, coy as it sometimes was about key moments. There is a need for a proper, rounded history of the Unit.    

  By 1982 the specific premises on which the Special Unit’s practice was founded were becoming dissonant with emerging trends in penal organization, and would probably have required special efforts to preserve them anyway, or more dubiously, needed re-articulation to survive intact within new policy frameworks. Very little of what the Unit stood for – the therapeutic community ideal (and the models of personal change implicit in it), reliance on experientially-informed faith in people rather than a “scientific” evidence-base, the stimulation of creativity, openness to haphazard and unpredictable external influences, the encouragement of argumentativeness - sat comfortably with the nascent managerialism of the 1980s  (Adler and Longhurst 1994).

      Integrating the Special Unit into the Scottish penal heritage – getting it commemorated as the milestone that it was - is not primarily a question of asking its key players to recall or reaffirm their achievements. Many are old, several have died11. Joyce Laing, who serendipitously helped the arts to flourish in the Unit, runs a gallery devoted to “outsider art” in Pittenweem, Fife (Cox 2006). Richard Demarco still promotes the arts in Edinburgh. Boyle, in his sixties now, still sculpting, lives abroad and, having, though choice and circumstance lived in the public eye as a “reformed ex-con” for far longer than most prison authors choose or get to, is entitled to all the anonymity he wants. Hugh Collins (2000), also still sculpting, wrote a partially revisionist account of the Unit, which, while possibly helpful at the time to his continuing quest for an authentic post-prison identity, denigrated its achievements and key people within it. There are people enough in Scotland still prone to doing this without the Unit’s beneficiaries joining in.

      The task of remembrance and commemoration is for a new generation, who are mindful that a country’s penal achievements and failures reflect deeper  cultural sensibilities, and invite judgment upon it (Scottish Government 2008). Past penal successes, vividly drawn, can ground and shape future possibilities in a field where optimism is always constrained and precarious, and the threat of repression is constant. They can signal to the present how near or far we might be from realising new aspirations, and can condition our sense of whether or not they are feasible, and of what it might take to make them so. The price of forgetting, or misremembering, is a desultory continuity, diminished hope, or wrongheaded change, or all three. The praise rightly bestowed on Ken Murray in his obituaries in October 2007 – which openly acknowledged his part in creating the Special Unit (Steven 2007; Wilson 2007) - tentatively suggest that sufficient time may now have elapsed for the Unit (even its earliest years) to be officially commemorated in the way it deserves. Its image, of course, will forever be tied to what Jimmy Boyle achieved there. No history could pretend otherwise.  While some may still find it hard to accept that Boyle’s personal example in the Unit and subsequent influence on public debate on crime and punishment were wholly to the good  - that it speaks well, not badly, of Scotland that civilising influences were successfully brought to bear on violent men – there is no virtue in withholding recognition from the very people who had the imagination to see that this was needed, the talent to make it happen and the wit to stick with it when it took an unexpected turn. A truth which can only be told in obituaries is a truth of which people are still afraid.  




1. The practical development of therapeutic communities, usually in hospital settings, developed in England after WW2, largely though the efforts of two men, Tom Main and Maxwell Jones (1907-1990). Although HMP Grendon Underwood functioned as a therapeutic community, there had been many more attempts to apply the concept in the US prison system: Dennie Briggs (b1927), an American psychologist had been particularly associated with those in the California prison system. Briggs worked with Jones in Britain between 1968-1974, briefly in the Dingleton psychiatric hospital, Melrose, in Scotland, later in the Henderson Hospital in England, as well as being a consultant for NACRO in this period. 

2.  The idea that relatively uneducated and notoriously violent men might grasp and benefit from complex art did not arise with the Barlinnie Special Unit. The impact of the San Francisco Actor’s Workshop performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot  before an audience of 1400 convicts in San Quentin penitentiary on 19th November 1957, had already  passed into legend, in arts circles if not among penal reformers (Esslin 1961). Rick Cluchey, a former young offender and imprisoned armed robber at the time of the 1957 performance, went on, after release in 1966, to become a major interpreter and friend of Beckett, and a drama-activist in US prisons. He brought his theatre group to  Scotland in the 1970’s at the behest of Richard Demarco, and visited the Barlinnie Special Unit. More significantly, in terms of the overall cultural climate, French thief-turned-novelist/poet/dramatist Jean Genet (1910-1986) was receiving immense intellectual attention in the 1960s, powered by Jean-Paul Sarte’s enthusiasm for his writing (Sartre 1952; Esslin 1961; Sontag 1966). Among literary intellectuals, if not penal reformers, comment on Genet provided something of a template for understanding affinities between criminals and artists, although there are few signs that such writing influenced the penal imagination  in Scotland.  

3. The other two prisoners, both murderers, had not been involved in gangland criminality in the way that Boyle, Winters and Conroy had, and were seemingly more in need of psychiatric support. This lent credence to the idea that circulated among prisoners when they first heard of the Unit, that residents would be treated as if they were mentally disturbed, hence the nickname “Nutcracker Suite” that got bestowed on it.    

4. The Special Unit had been intended to make difficult prisoners manageable enough to be transferred back to mainstream prisons, and it had never been envisaged that prisoners would be released direct from the Unit, or indeed, that they would stay there as long as Boyle did. The argument that sending people back to mainstream prisons risked them unlearning precisely what the Unit had taught them was a valid one – Paterson (1982) suggested that the original assumption should be revisited – and in Boyle’s case it did look as though gratuitous punishment was being imposed on him, if only to assuage hostile public opinion. Boyle sought unsuccessfully to invoke human rights legislation to prevent his transfer to Saughton, but in the event he was an exemplary prisoner, helpful to other younger prisoners, which consolidated his supporters faith in him, and confounded his detractors.    

5. Because Boyle never appealed the conviction, this will never formally be resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. He has always said it was a friend of his who killed Rooney, on whom he refused to “grass” (Campbell 1999). Glasgow journalist George Forbes (2004), who accepts that Boyle was subject to extreme brutality in prison, and, for all its omissions, regards A Sense of Freedom as a “remarkable achievement”, still insists that the evidence incriminates Boyle. Given the kind of man he has openly admitted to being in the 1960s,   and the associates he had, it is not implausible that Boyle could have killed someone. It is equally not implausible that the police hated him so much that they fitted him up, or that the courts were too trusting of police evidence. Whether he killed Rooney or not, Boyle did appalling things as a young man - the veiled self-portrait in The Hard Man (Boyle and McGrath 1977) makes this searingly clear. In the course of the inward changes that are unavoidably entailed by the kind of transformation he put himself through, it is hard to believe that he has not had demons to deal with, which he was never under any obligation to share publicly, although some might conceivably be inferred from his surreal, allegorical novel Hero of the Underworld (Boyle 1999), a story conceived in part while he was still in the Special Unit.        

6 There is room for argument about what the term “hard man” meant in Glasgow, and whether the term was rightly applied to Boyle.  Spring (1990:76) says it meant “a tough guy, or at least someone who can’t be taken advantage of” and while, at least since the Scottish crime novels of the 1930’s, a gangster had been one embodiment of it, the term did not have any necessary associations with criminality. The association with fighting (fists more than knives), a taciturn masculine presence and a cold self-possession, were ever present, but “hard men” could be good men who fought for decent principles. Policemen could be hardmen.  On the streets, Boyle’s violence was as often crazed as it was self-possessed;  in the Unit he discovered that some of his best qualities – creativity, intelligence, articulateness – were quite different from the “hard” virtues to  which he might once have aspired.       

7. Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) was an exponent of German neo-Expressionism, so influential according to Robert Hughes (1980:402), that he “was to no small degree responsible for  the eighties upsurge of European confidence in its own art against New York’s”. He believed that everyone had creative potential, and while not being conventionally left-wing, his view of art’s politically transformative potential – “Art”, he declared, “should be a real means, in daily life, to go in and transform the power fields of society’  (quoted in Hughes 1980: 402-3) -  lent itself to at least some of the art produced in the Special Unit, and Boyle (1982) was thinking of  himself  as an “Expressionist” as early as 1974.  

8. When Ken Murray retired from the Prison Service in 1987 he became chair of the social work committee of the then Strathclyde Regional Council, and, in that role, a significant champion of work with people with alcohol and drug dependencies, the homeless, and ex-prisoners. He died in October 2007, aged 76. His death made headlines in national newspapers, and in the obituaries he could not have been praised more highly for his work in the Special Unit (Steven 2007; Wilson 2007). The Lord Provost of Glasgow (a former social work colleague), a former prisons inspector, and the SPOA all  noted his unshakeable integrity. Most pointedly, the Scottish Prison Service, which did not treat him well in 1979 or the years thereafter, conceded that he was a “widely respected individual whose ideas were probably ahead of their time” and that “contemporary ways of working with prisoners today are due in no small measure to people like Ken” (The Herald  5th October 2007). Compared to many of his peers in the SPOA Murray was indeed ahead of his time but, as Jeffrey (2009:126) shows, some of the “liberal thinking” that the Special Unit embodied – treat people decently and they are more likely to act decently - had been prefigured by a Barlinnie Governor in the 1930s, who was then thwarted by his superiors. For Murray, the liberal/socialist practices he introduced in the Unit, far from being incomprehensively novel, were decades overdue.  

9.  In Scotland in the 1970s, Boyle’s transformation was so unique and surprising that many people struggled to find words to comprehend it, falling back on clich�s, or remaining baffled.  Bit by bit, never explicitly, Boyle’s story was quietly absorbed into diffuse, distinctively Scottish, egalitarian mythologies  – a belated “lad o’pairts”, the poor kid with talent who should not be held back, and who comes good in the end -  and “democratic intellectualism”, which, in one version at least, acknowledges that voices from the margins of the polity should be attended to, however discomforting. Within such frameworks, probably subconsciously, Boyle slowly came to  be seen as a more intelligible and acceptable figure – opinionated and controversial, perhaps unduly flamboyant, but not someone whose transformation was inherently implausible, or duplicitous, or Un-Scottish. His detractors always had Jekyll and Hyde/Deacon Brodie-style “duality” to fall back on - the idea that an ostensibly respectable life in Edinburgh could still hide links with the criminal underworld - but as it became ever more clear that Boyle had severed links with crime those who clung to this view came to seem shamelessly vindictive. (Not that the tabloids who did this cared, or were any less destructive).         

       At the time of Boyle’s transformation, the ostensibly religious terms “redemption” and “repentance” would probably not have been acceptable to any party in the argument, but since then the terms have, to a degree, been infused with secular meanings, and criminologists (at least) are less wary of them. Repentance means reorientation, and renunciation of past ways of acting and thinking, living differently – and better, not necessarily disowning the past (whose consequences can’t be undone), but ceasing to let it shape one’s present and future  behaviour. In this sense, Boyle’s actions in the Special Unit and afterwards illustrate repentance rather well, and spoke far louder than mere words of contrition.  

10. I mean by “penal heritage” all the ways we have of remembering the penal past, from prison museums and official histories, to journalistic reminiscence, historical true crime, obituaries, and everyday folk memory (Misztal 2003). All signs of the Unit’s former presence in D wing have been obliterated in HMP Barlinnie itself.  A small section of the Glasgow People’s Palace museum is devoted to crime and punishment, and within that – around a display of an edition of The Key – the Special Unit is lightly commemorated. Journalist Robert Jeffrey (2002; 2009) has celebrated the Unit’s achievements under the sombre rubric “so successful they shut it down”, but there is an uglier side to some of contemporary Glasgow’s other true crime and local history writing in this respect, which shamelessly vilifies Boyle the young thug from forty years ago, without ever mentioning what it was that truly made him memorable and distinctive in later life - the Special Unit and his rehabilitation within it.


11. Two of the people associated with the early years of the Barlinnie Special Unit, and mentioned here, died during the six weeks I was writing this paper – Cordelia Oliver (1923-2009) and Kay Carmichael (1925-2009). I would like to dedicate this paper to Kay Carmichael – my own act of remembrance, to a fellow social work academic. I learned a long time ago that she had been associated with the Unit, and because of the deep impression that A Sense of Freedom  made on me  as a novice social worker with young offenders, in south London in the 1970s, I developed a lasting curiosity about the provenance of the book, and about the people who made the Special Unit what it was. I hope this paper has done justice to them all, although there is more of it yet to be done.   


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