PRISONERS of the present have been helping to provide fresh insights into the lives of those who did porridge in the past.
The result is an innovative new installation inside Hexham Old Gaol that will be unveiled to the public next Saturday.
Beyond the Borders is the brainchild of Allendale’s Ally Redshaw-Boxwell who, in 2011, set up Dilly Arts, an arts development company specialising in working with prisoners and their families.
As a former Hexham resident, Ally was fascinated to learn that the town’s famous Old Gaol was the earliest recorded purpose-built prison in England.
“When you walk in, you are aware there are stories under your feet in the worn-down steps and you really want to know about them,” she says.
“You want to know about the people who have touched those walls and made marks on those walls.
“Like a lot of museums though, it had become quite tired in terms she was aware of the exhibits that were there.
“But walking around, all the staff and the stories they could tell you brought the place to life in a way that the exhibits themselves didn’t.
“Dilly Arts is the only development company in the North-East that specialises in working with prisoners and their families, so it was very obvious to me to put the two things together.
“The project was about providing an opportunity for the prisoners to learn through engagement with a heritage programme in a creative way.
“Our expectation is that it will bring the offering of Hexham Old Gaol into the 21st century through the use of really new technology, which will hopefully further engage audiences.
“And we hope people who have visited the gaol before will revisit and see this new exhibition and that it will provide a much deeper and more personal experience.”
Around 36 inmates at three different prisons – HMP Durham, HMP Frankland and HMP YOI Low Newton – have worked with Ally’s team to bring to life the real stories of prisoners of the past.
And some of the input has been invaluable, as Ally explains.
“The prisoner-participants were able to bring their unique experiences to the project in empathising with the characters held in Hexham Old Gaol in the past,” she says.
“It was really interesting because there are things that they would bring to life that you might not consider.
“One of the men in Frankland said he was always aware of what the weather was doing when people came in to visit. He explained that you can almost smell the weather on people.
“Tangible things like that, you would not pick up unless you were working with prisoners.
“There are certain things that will transcend generations when you have your freedom taken away from you – whether it’s now or in the 1300s.”
The three prisoner groups each worked with the creative team to develop a narrative for a different character from centuries ago.
Each character is from a different Border Reiver clan. “We have someone from the Kerr family, we have an Armstrong and an Elliot.
“Within Hexham Old Gaol there are three levels, and in the past, their circumstances would dictate where the prisoners were held.
“The top was for the most privileged, whilst the pit was for the least privileged and we wanted to bring stories from each of these strata,” Ally says.
Historian John Sadler, an authority on the Reivers and an author and Newcastle University lecturer, has spent the last few months going into the prisons with writer Sheree Mack to work with the prisoners on the wider history of the Border Reivers.
With their help, the prisoners developed narratives for the three characters.
Ally says the Reiver stories really captivated the inmates’ imaginations.
“The times they lived in were really quite hard, and I think there are a lot of people suffering hard times within their families now due to the economic issues, so it’s not that difficult to draw a correlation between striving to put food on the family table back then – like when the wife puts the spurs on to the husband’s plate to indicate it’s time to go reiving – and now.
“The stories of the Border Reivers are very real – they are not some great fanciful fairytale. They are gritty, earthy and real and people identify with that.”
Animator Nick Lewis, of Arcus Studios, was set to work to digitally illustrate the narratives the prisoners worked on.
Hand-held computers will provide visitors with a window to the past. Ally says, “The idea is that you will pick up a tablet on each level and align it to a feature or a wall in the prison and it’s almost as if that person is coming out of there to tell their story.
The prisoners had very strong ideas about what the characters would look like, how they would hold themselves and their physical appearance as well as their vulnerabilities.”
Lalya Gaye, a designer and artist from Attaya Projects, ensured the work interacted with the space in the best way.
Other team members included designer Anya Kovalieva and Ally’s husband, Graeme Redshaw- Boxwell, a web designer who has created a website to accompany the exhibition and a Moodle learning space.
It is hoped that primary schools will be able to use the exhibition as part of their curriculum.
A second historian, Maureen Meikle of Leeds Trinity University, provided a second pair of eyes to ensure the installation is historically accurate.
The project has cost just under £38,000 – £34,900 coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund whilst each prison gave an additional £1,000.
Of course Ally is aware there are always detractors who will question any expenditure that enriches the lives of offenders.
“It basically boils down to do we want prisoners to be rehabilitated and reduce reoffending and for people to use their time in prison to learn new skills, have new experiences and gain knowledge to better equip them for when they come out of prison? Or do we want them to go into prison and not do any of that?” she said.
Ally was director of Durham City Arts between 2006 and 2011 and has worked in prisons for the last 10 years.
“When I went to Durham, my view was that if you are going to do community arts work in Durham, which has the biggest prisoner population outside London, you need to engage with the prisons.
“Personally, I just find that it’s an area of work where there’s a great need, and I think that working with the arts you can really touch people and really benefit people and give them opportunities they may never have had in their lives before.”
Another project, Key Change, that Ally’s company commissioned from Open Clasp Theatre, devised by women from HMPYOI Low Newton, won the Best of Edinburgh Award 2015 and is about to hit New York in January.
“I think art like this can help society understand a little bit more about prisoners and their pasts – where they come from and the challenges that they have had – in the hope that communities can learn to have a bit more empathy with them and help them to not reoffend and support them back into their communities,” says Ally.
“Very often it’s a first step for them to get engaged with activities with an educational focus. And then some prisoners will say, ‘Do you know what? I think I do want to sign up to that course’.”
Whilst the inmates who worked on Beyond the Borders do not have access to the internet and will not be allowed out to see the exhibition, their friends and families are being invited.
Ally says, “Throughout the project the prisoners have learned and enhanced vital skills, such as numeracy and literacy, in addition to learning new heritage skills.
“We’re really proud that their work and dedication is now captured for all to see – and learn from – in this exhibition.”
l After next Saturday’s preview event, the Old Gaol will be open for the Christmas Market on Saturday, December 12, from 11am to 3pm, and then by appointment only over the winter. It reopens for 2016 on Tuesday, February 2.