Spe­cial Unit was a life­line and helped to re­ha­bil­i­tate me

Daily Record - - CORONAVIRU­S CRISIS -

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.

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