Special Unit was a lifeline and helped to rehabilitate me
EDUCATIONAL Barlinnie’s Special Unit gave prisoners new tools for life
BEING moved to the Special Unit at Barlinnie was the start of Hugh Collins’s transformation.
Always controversial because of the humane treatment and privileges given to Scotland’s most dangerous prisoners, it was seen as a reward for violence.
Collins didn’t ask to go there, was suspicious of the staff, many of whom he had encountered in other jails and disliked, and asked to be transferred out.
But slowly, he adapted, and fell under the influence of Jimmy Boyle, an older gangland enforcer, nearing the end of his own life sentence.
Boyle’s famous autobiography, A Sense of Freedom, outlined the brutality he had faced in Scotland’s jails, and how eventually he had resorted to a “dirty protest”, smearing himself and his cell in faeces to avoid being beaten.
The Special Unit, and the enlightened prison officer Ken Murray, who believed rehabilitation would only come by building trust between staff and prisoners, saved Boyle, facilitating his conversion from killer to artist.
Collins said: “I felt a bit of resentment towards Jimmy. My mum and dad would come to visit me in the unit and end up hanging out with him.
“My mum would be bending my ear telling me to learn from him and when I did get things wrong, getting drunk and doing drugs, Jimmy would pull me up.
“It was even more annoying because he always did it in a reasonable way and I was used to being shouted at.
“We also had a couple of run-ins. I started it both times and he knocked me out cold both times.
“I changed gradually in the unit but I resisted it at first. I didn’t always want to stop
being a monster but when other people stop treating you like one, you stop behaving like one.
“When Jimmy left to do his final preparation for freedom, he left me his tools for sculpting and I naturally inherited his place in the yard.
“I found I was good at it. I screwed the nut and got on with trying to prepare for life after jail.”
Collins believes the Scottish Office deliberately tolled the bell for the unit by insisting on the wrong prisoners being introduced, with staff and governors constantly changing.
It was an expensive experiment and stories had made the press about prisoners drinking, taking drugs and having sex with their visitors.
He said: “The Special Unit was my first real lifeline and they killed it. But, although I had to go back into the mainstream, the years I spent in there had changed me and educated me.
“My mum had never missed a visit and started campaigning for my release, and through my art I got a placement at the 369 Gallery in Edinburgh and met Caroline, who finished the job of saving me that the unit started.”
Collins was released in 1993 and married the artist Caroline McNairn soon after.
They moved to the Borders in 1995 and lived there happily until Caroline died of cancer 10 years ago on September 29.
He remains in the farm cottage they shared with his beloved collie Blackie.
He is proud that he has never been in trouble since his release, aged 42.