Unfamiliar Voices: A Review of the Legacy of NCAD’s Art Programme in Portlaoise Prison, 1987-2010

Dr. Aislinn O’Donnell

“They don’t want you to think, they want to think for you”
“Who is ‘they’?”
“All of them, the system”
     Words of a prisoner

Through its art programme, the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) maintained a presence in Portlaoise Prison for almost a quarter of a century from 1987-2010. This element of the review of that time seeks to provide a context for this work, to capture the experienced quality of education offered by this programme for the range of stakeholders involved, and to offer a set of philosophical reflections drawn from the words of those interviewed in the process of reviewing the programme. These names have been anonymised throughout this document. They represent the wide range of perspectives of those who played an important role in terms of offering, supporting and participating in education in prison including Governors, Prison Officers, Head Teachers, a National Co-ordinator of Prison Education, Practitioner/Educators, Ex-Ordinary Prisoners and Ex-Political Prisoners. All interviews were recorded and all took place outside the prison. Some ex-prisoners undertook their study with NCAD at the beginning of the program whilst others were involved at the close of the program. As such, divergence in descriptions and evaluations of education in the prison may reflect these different periods. All participants had the right of response to the first version of this document. The conclusion will make a series of suggestions as to how the programme might be re-envisioned and re-initiated. It aims to communicate and evaluate the qualitative nature of the educative experience as narrated by key stakeholders thus offering a richer story than one that might be offered through more restrictive criteria of evaluation born of performance and audit based models of education.

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