THERE’S an exhibition in Hull that everyone in Scotland should know about. It shows an important part of our nation’s modern history – the outrageous success of Barlinnie Prison’s Special Unit: an experiment in prison reform that was so good at transforming criminals that the Scottish Prison Service closed it down.

The exhibition is called I am the Coyote: the art of the Special Unit ... and is on at Hull University Library until November 4. You can see the surreal sculptures of Jimmy Boyle, works by Joseph Beuys (the unit’s most celebrated visitor), a ton of photos and a fascinating conversation (on video) between Richard Demarco, the impresario who connected the art world with the Special Unit, and Jimmy Boyle.

Almost every newspaper article about prisons tends to be grim, with endless reports of violence, suicides, drug use and a lack of funding. I don’t think any government in the last 100 years has seriously asked itself why we throw people in jail – but, if they did, they’d realise that the rationale is based on a Victorian belief that prisoners can be reformed by a military regime and religious instruction.

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The key question is: should time in prison be as harsh as possible? If so, then we’re doing fine. If not, then surely there is lots to be learned from the incredible (but scattered) archive of material from Barlinnie’s Special Unit.

Scotland does better than the other countries of the UK regarding prison reform – there are interesting things happening in Scotland to help prisoners – but my impression is that they are just trying to make a bad system a bit more humane – rather than arguing for a complete rethink.

What I find inexplicable is that the success story of the Special Unit isn’t known about more in Scotland. The most scandalous part of the story is that the Scottish Prison service didn’t do any sort of evaluation of the Special Unit when they quietly shut it down in 1994. Barely anything has been published on the issue.

Fortunately, the example of the Special Unit was picked up elsewhere. The “therapeutic community” approach, where prisoners and guards manage the unit as equals, was picked up by the Dutch and Scandinavians; and HM Prison Hull has a large art class that took its inspiration from the unit – and organised this exhibition.

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Just 20 years after it had opened its doors, the Special Unit was shut down, despite the fact that it had transformed several “most-dangerous” criminals into artists, writers and productive members of society. Why? This question has never really been addressed, as far as I can tell, but when I met an ex-prisoner he told me the Scottish Government, and the Prison Service, had been embarrassed by the experiment.

This “embarrassment” point makes perfect sense. The prison service, and the Tory-led government of the day, believed in tough military-style incarceration and did nothing to defend the unit from constant attack by the Scottish tabloids who delighted in stories of sex, drugs and freedom-within-prison. I can just imagine the dour, angry faces at the Scottish Office as the latest tabloid report came in about how Scotland’s “most dangerous” prisoners at the Special Unit are living in the lap of luxury.

Hopefully things have moved on since then and the people in charge of prisons in Scotland today are more open to the lessons learned from Britain’s greatest experiment in prison reform. Maybe they should hire a bus and head down to Hull.

Rupert Wolfe Murray visited Barlinnie Special Unit as a child, with his mother who published Jimmy Boyle’s first book A Sense of Freedom. He recently helped organise the Special Unit press archive which is part of the exhibition at Hull University Library.

More details about the exhibition here:

Read an extended version of this piece at​.