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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Bernie’s Story

I really appreciate every minute of it

“I was on remand for a year in Hydebank Wood College and Women’s Prison, and that year I got the help I needed.  It was life-saving, I can only be thankful that I had the arts to help me through it and to give me a foundation to recovery.”

I took part in a range of classes from arts and crafts, music, creative writing, pottery, poetry and I was also a member of the in-house choir, Voices of Release.  Participating in these programmes helped me to settle down to life in prison, those experiences shaped me, actually saved me.  I don’t think I would be the person I am now without having been in Hydebank, the things I learnt in there I never got a chance to learn anywhere else.  I learnt to put my heart into the arts, to admire myself for the things I made and for being strong.

When I was released from Hydebank I wanted to increase my skill set and use the arts as tool for communicating with my children.  I wanted to learn more about the community: the arts community in Belfast.  I felt I was in a good place and wanted to sustain that so I hoped PAF’s arts mentoring programme would help.  I was delighted to be matched with my mentor Patricia, she was so versatile; she knew so much about different kinds of art.  We would talk about my experiences, we had a mutual understanding not to go too far into that because obviously I didn’t want our time together to become a counselling session, but just something to draw on.

Patricia came up with a beautiful analogy, we started looking at symbols and eventually came up with a chair as the focus point, a symbol for mental health, and it sort of unlocked my way of interpreting what I was going through.  We thought about how a chair can represent an absence, someone who is missing or a loss – I was absent from my family.  How it can also be something that supports you, a place to rest – mental illness is a lonely place.  I am lucky in the sense that I got help and support from professionals and from people who believed in me.

My confidence in myself and my art flourished, to the extent that I presented my chair-pieces as a mini-exhibition at Liberation, an exhibition by PAF artists in the Crumlin Road Gaol Belfast.  My desire to raise awareness about mental health issues motivated me to showcase my work.  It was amazing to watch professional artists prepare for an exhibition, to absorb how to go about presenting your work.  To feel part of an actual exhibition, especially for us PAF artists, was magical.  A jail is not a place you want to have memories about, but whenever we went into the Crumlin Road Gaol exhibition space it felt like home.

I found the mentoring relationship to be both fulfilling and helpful.  It has been a hard and difficult time, but I got through it with Patricia and the art, and I really appreciated every minute of it.  It is worth doing it, a hundred percent.  For me it was healing, I know I am in a better place.  The mentoring takes you to a different level.