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Inside Comedy: Inmates do standup in Glascow’s Barlinnie prison

Thu, Jan 17, 2013

A project run by a Glasgow prison ..has used comedy to improve in- ..mates’ confidence in a bid to stop reoffending. While comedy gigs in Scottish prisons are nothing new, this is the first time that prisoners in HMP Barlinnie have took to the stage and delivered a short routine to over 100 fellow cons. While it won’t stop reoffending overnight, staff believe the project plays an important part in the prison’s rehabilitation efforts. In Scotland, reoffending remains an important issue with government figures suggesting that of all those released from prison, over half are reconvicted within a year.


Jason, an inmate of HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow, tatooed the words “Fun Hoose” (Fun House) on his knuckles. Inmates at the prison have been tak- ing part in comedy classes in a bid to boost their confidence and social skills in the hopes that the will stop reoffending. Photo: Simon Murphy

Jason, 41, from East Kilbride, was the first Barlinnie inmate to take to the stage. He is serving a life sentence for murder and has spent 20 years – nearly half his life – behind bars.

“I’m on a life sentence for murder. The whole time I’ve been in is 20 years. I done 12 years and I got out for 14 months, but I lost my appeal so I’ve been back in for 8 years now.”

Jason says he is nearing the end of his sentence and that during his last 6 – 8 months in Barlinnie, he in the “top end” of the prison with increased freedom. He is waiting to get Statutory Leave [home leave] to see his parents and will then progress to a six-month work placement. “After I’ve done that, I’m away.”

Despite his 20-year sentence, Jason still maintains his innocence: “I know you won’t believe me, and a lot of people don’t, when I tell you I’m innocent. I’m not just saying it. I done 12 years and I got out, which is unheard of,” he explains.

“I was out for 14 months. I went back to my parent’s house, but I was institutionalized. I hadn’t been getting home leave. I couldn’t handle it. Sitting in my bedroom, it felt like I was back in my cell. I couldn’t handle crowds of people so I ended up turning to drink as a coping mechanism. I messed things up and got involved with the law again and ended up here. I got ten months in Barlinnie for Police Assault and then lost my appeal. I didn’t do myself any favors.”

As for the comedy classes, Jason says, “It was a real good laugh. I’ve never done anything like this before. I feel like a star! I’m up first and all. To be honest with you, it’s only for three minutes, but it’s gonna be the longest three minutes of my life.”

“When I’m in with a group of people that I don’t know, I have the ability to make people laugh. I’ve got a good sense of humor; I just come out with it. But because now I need to get up in front of everybody, I’ve got to rehearse what I’m saying. I’ve got a couple of jokes I’ve been rehearsing every day. But it’s getting the timing right. Hopefully there will be no hecklers and I won’t get slaughtered! The Governor is here so I know it won’t be that bad!”

“Comedy is definitely a good thing to have in prisons… as a coping mechanism, especially this time of year – Christmas time. They say laughter is the best medicine, don’t they? So we’ll see what happens. I just hope I don’t die on stage!”

John, 34, who is also from the South side of Glasgow, says taking part in the Barlinnie comedy project has improved his confidence and communication skills.

“The comedy classes help in learning confidence skills – how to put yourself across. And I’m getting to put my creative writing into it. I make jokes about how prisoners get treated, obesity rates in Scotland, weather warnings. Stuff I see, I find it funny, so other people might, too.”

John on stage. Photo: Simon Murphy

John is on a 22-month sentence for sectarian breach of the peace and has previously served time in Barlinnie for similar sentences including alcohol-related crime, football ban orders and other offences of a sectarian nature. He agrees that comedy can be useful as a coping mechanism for inmates:

“In here we laugh at anything. It helps to cope with things. We probably laugh because we’re masking ourselves. We’re not coming out and showing our true beliefs.”

“You get jail banter every day, someone trying to rip it every day, so you need to come out with it. It’s a coping mechanism, a way to get through your sentence. Banter between you and your co-pilot [cellmate] – it keeps people’s spirits up.”

While in Barlinnie, John has been studying for qualifications in English and creative writing to help him find work on his release: “I want to use my time here constructively. I do stuff for the prison radio, I write poems. [The comedy classes] help with my confidence and writing. I want to do media and journalism. By the time I get out I should hopefully get my HNC.”

“Tax payers always say, ‘prisoners get this, prisoners get that’ but we don’t get nothing. We don’t get anything extra or treated special. I’m in this class because I want to be. I want to change my attitude, we want to change our ways.”

While he’s glad of the new skills he’s gained from the course, he doesn’t think it will stand to stop reoffending alone: “Reoffending is either down to addiction, financial, housing and mental health. Somebody’s serving a short term sentence, they’ve got problems when they get out, they’ve nowhere to stay. They get put into a hostel. I’ve seen people I’ve been in the jail with. That guy gets paid on a Wednesday and is drinking on Thursday.”

“I don’t think this will cut reoffending but what it has done is give us confidence, new skills. My nerves are shot now but once I start saying the act I’m doing, it’ll be different. We can talk in front of a group after this. I hope to stay out when I get out in June, definitely.”

For Benjamin, growing up in Priesthill, an area of South Glasgow where addiction and violence are common, was no laughing matter: “As you can imagine I never really had much of a chance in life. Out of all the boys I grew up with, 9 out of 10 of us ended up in prison. Some of them are even dead, through drugs and that. It’s all part of growing up in the schemes.”

Benjamin (37) performs in front of 100 fellow inmates at a com- edy gig in HM Barlinnie prison, Glasgow. Photo: Simon Murphy

Benjamin himself is no stranger to Barlinnie prison. He spent his first night there at 18 while on his way to Polmont Young Offenders Institute: “That was back before there were TVs. You had a single bed and a book if you were lucky.”

He’s since returned on several short-term sentences but at 37 he’s determined that his current two-year stint will be his last. “I’ve been here a couple of times through alcohol, getting drunk, being an idiot … shoplifting, violence, a number of things. It’s all caught up with me.”

“This is the longest sentence I’ve done. Before it was three months, six months… every time I got out nothing much had changed. But this time, I’ve lost my flat, my girlfriend; I’ve no clothes or nothing out there. I’ll be starting from scratch.”

“Everything that I get, I’m going to appreciate more and I’ll work harder to get what I want. My boy’s 15. I don’t want him to see his dad as no use.”

Citing alcohol addiction and environment as his key reasons for offending, Benjamin hopes a longer sentence could help change things.

“My family’s in Priesthill, so I always end up back there. Whether you’re an alcoholic or a drug addict, to stop you need to change your circle of friends. It’s not just your addiction you’re giving up. It’s everything – the way you’ve been living your life. It’s hard to cut away.”

“Since I’ve spent so long in here, I’ve already cut away from everybody, so it’s not as if I’ve got anything to lose. I’ve stopped drinking forever. I’ll not be sitting about drunk all week. I’ll work.”

While you may think inmates would have little to laugh about, Benjamin says that jail humor is sometimes essential to surviving prison.

“It’s a good way to diffuse a situation. I’ve seen boys arguing and one them will just cut a guy down and the guy won’t know what to do while everyone’s rolling about the floor laughing. Some guys in here, some company you’re sitting in is too serious … afraid to have a laugh and relax because you’re in the jail and people think you need to put on this tough guy bravado. But you don’t – just have a laugh and be yourself.”

“Anywhere can be a funny place if you make it. There’s guys on the front line in Iraq cracking jokes… I’m sure if they can do it under that amount of pressure, then we can do it.”

“The comedy class is brilliant man, it’s given me a bit of confidence and I’ve met a good couple of boys through this class – guys I wouldn’t really talk to.”

“Did I think I’d be up on stage telling jokes to a hundred bodies? No way. It feels great knowing I’ve done it. Hopefully I’ll do something like this again when I get out. Some guys have built a career out of telling jokes, I do it for nothing! I’m too stupid to work, too lazy to be a thief so a comedian would be OK, wouldn’t it?”

Robert, 44, is from Govan in Glasgow and has served 12 years of a life sentence. He was the third act on stage and, after the gig, he said, “The workshops were totally different from anything I’ve went through before, but it was actually good. It makes a change from the daily routine.”

“Did I ever think I’d be up telling jokes? Definitely not! Not in front of that many people! It’s ok when it’s in front of one or two but, 100 people is completely different.”

“I nearly lost it, but Bruce (Morton – a Scottish comedian who helped mentor the inmates) was at the side to get me back on track. I felt dead nervous earlier on, but see when John went on and I heard everybody laughing I felt alright and bounced up and thought ‘here we go!’ “

Robert (44) stands in the grounds of HMP Barlinnie as he waits to perform a live comedy routine in front of his fellow inmates. He is currently serving a life sentence and says
the comedy program “makes a change from the daily routine.” Photo: Simon Murphy

“The workshops have given me the skills. The confidence was there, but it was about learning to let it out and use it in different ways. How to deliver the lines, how to hold ourselves. I’m actually glad I went up there. It would’ve been a waste of the course not going up.”

Robert is nearing the end of his sentence and is “training for freedom” in 2016.

“I’ve picked up other skills along the way being in the prison, working with sewing machines and that – things that I’ve never done before. And then this, I suppose it’ll be good for doing a speech at a wedding or something!”

Written by Laura Smith,
International Network of Street Papers


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