Inspiring creativity and encouraging personal and social change through the arts

The Prison Arts Foundation is as important as it is unique. Thanks to our pioneering work with people with convictions lives are being transformed and patterns of behaviour changed for good.

Our team of experienced professional artists working across the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland are offering people with convictions a life-line, helping to improve their creative and communications skills, which is key to personal and social development, building self-confidence and unlocking people’s potential.

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Speak Out! Launch

2020 launch event to mark International Women’s Day NIACRO

5th March, 2-3pm Invite Only

Amelia House 4 Amelia St, Belfast BT2 7GS

About the project

PAF writer in residence Maria McManus led a series of workshops alongside NIACRO’s staff creating a safe environment for the women to reflect on the experiences and choices (positive and negative) that have characterised their lives.  Identifying how trauma contributed (directly/indirectly) to their offending was a particularly powerful opportunity and helped to free the women from the guilt, shame and low self-worth often associated with being a victim of domestic abuse and from being convicted of a crime.

The goal of the project was to create a process of engagement with the group in giving voice to their stories through language and words.  Through discussion with facilitators, volunteers and group members, the women were encouraged to and provided support in telling their story.  Once the participating women were content with the writing of their story, the individual stories arising from the residency were collated to create a professionally published book, designed by the women. PAF artist in residence Lucy Turner worked alongside the women separately to create art work for the book.

Maria McManus, PAF writer in residence noted

“In our groups, we had many conversations by, for and with, the blank page. Our mantra became that the blank page would never argue back, that it would be there for us any time we chose to lift a pen – when we were alone in the night, when we were feeling   frightened, angry, despairing, unheard, as well as to trap those moments of joy and contentedness, so we could hold them to us and stop them slipping past unnoticed. 

Almost all of the participants were new to creative writing.  Putting pen to paper can be daunting and fraught with old and uncomfortable experiences that people carry with them,  like wounds and hurts that have been inflicted such as old and unfinished experiences of being punished in school, fears of not getting it ‘right’, as well as feelings of powerlessness and injustice regarding what had been written and recorded about them – by the media, or in court reports, by probation staff and social workers, or by social services or at the interface with the benefits system.  Words are powerful and have the potential to hurt and to heal. 

This book is some first steps in redress – it charts the way, and records, in the words of the women themselves, their thoughts and feelings, their lived experiences of the world.  

The process of writing is in itself a process of taking back agency, a reinforcement of self-determination and self-awareness at the very same moment that we are also learning new tools and new skills for life, and the daring to look for what it is we need, in some of the more unlikely places, such as poetry.  It has been my great privilege to work with these unforgettable and courageous women.”

Geraldine McGuigan, Senior Practitioner NIACRO said

“We are very proud of the hard work, bravery and determination of the women who came together, over many weeks, to write the pieces that make up this book.  The final product shows a great deal of talent, pain, love and emotion.  We are indebted to the women who trusted in the process and staff from NIACRO and the Prison Arts Foundation.  We are thankful also to Community Foundation for Northern Ireland whose Tampon Tax Fund, awarded to NIACRO in 2019 has made this venture possible.

Through skilful facilitation, women were supported to recognise (perhaps for the first time) the skills, personal resolve, resilience and character with which they faced adversity, and to recognise the lies that often gave way to shame, guilt or low self-worth.

As NIACRO has done in the past, and through the medium of creative arts, women were encouraged to build on their experience, to ‘Speak Out!’ and to consolidate the skills they have discovered, and confidence gained.

In particular, we wanted to encourage and support women to make lasting connections.

We hope that the women who took part in this project;

  • Feel a sense of achievement gained from doing so
  • Discover how the honest sharing of their ‘stories’ helps to remove fear and shame which fosters secrecy and isolation
  • Grow confidence and increased appreciation of their self-worth
  • Forge new friendships and connections, helping to overcome lives often lived in isolation and fear.

For women who are still in abusive relationships, we hope that ‘Speak Out!’ will give them the confidence needed to seek professional help to live lives free of abuse.”

Click here to read the Speak Out book.