'Art is universal, it crosses borders' - Irish prisoners using creative classes for rehabilitation
A REFORMED Northern Irish prisoner turned artist is leading the way for creative inmates in the Midlands, Arbour Hill, Portlaoise, Limerick and Cork prisons.
Stephen Greer, a former prisoner of HM Prison Maghaberry, turned his life around after participating in art classes during his sentence.
Now out on temporary release, the Co Down native has traded a life of gangland and drug-related crime for a career in the arts.
His work is currently featured in the 'Unlocked' exhibition which is being shown at Kilmainham Gaol. The exhibition is made up of a vast collection of artwork from prisoners, including paintings, crocheting, model making and ceramics.
Coinciding with the 17th International Conference of the European Prison Education Association, the exhibition features the work of Eddie Cahill, the brother of murdered criminal Martin 'The General' Cahill. After spending eight years in Portlaoise prison, Cahill turned his life around through the medium of painting since his release nearly 25 years ago.
Both Greer and Cahill have inspired prisoners currently serving sentences to explore arts and crafts.
Tom Shortt, Arts Officer & Coordinator with the Irish Prison Education Service, explained that Greer's piece, which features a portrait of himself in conversation with the Grim Reaper in front of an imitative bag of cocaine, a joint of cannabis, a gun and a picture of his newborn child, is the only piece in the exhibition from Northern Ireland.
"The conference that was on was European, so I just personally felt that we shouldn't have a border on Ireland.
"He's from a loyalist background. He's kind of a success story out of the arts in prisons in Northern Ireland in the same way that Eddie Cahill is in the south. He believes that prison changed his life. Some prisoners realise if they didn't get off the streets, and they didn't take some time out that they might of been dead.
"He says that about his own life. The fact he portrays himself almost like having a dialogue with death - it's quite complex. The whole transition he went through, he knew he was staring death in the face. Then he starts weighing up what was taking him down that road - drugs and violence. Then he was faced with what kind of a future did he want, he had a child. It was art that he discovered in prison that began to get him really thinking differently," Shortt said.
"Art can become a catalyst for change. In his case, it's through this creative time and working with the teachers who were helping him along the road that helped him to leave crime behind and walk away from everything to do with gangland crime. He has gone on to college.
"Art is universal, it crosses borders," he added.
The project, in partnership with the Irish Prison Service's Educational Training Board, aims to aid prisoners rehabilitate into society once their sentence has been served by providing them with a skill that could further their job prospects upon release.
- The exhibition is running at Kilmainham Gaol until August 25, and is free to visit between 9 m and 6pm Monday to Sunday