May 10


12:00 pm - 01:00 pm

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DMU Events

Some Lessons from the Barlinnie Special Unit 1973-1994

This seminar, the next in our Prison and Probation Research Hub series will explore the Barlinnie Special Unit with Mike Nellis, Emeritus Professor of Criminal and Community Justice, University of Strathclyde.

The Barlinnie Special Unit opened as a small therapeutic community for a handful of Scotland’s then most violent and disruptive prisoners in D-Wing of HMP Barlinnie, Glasgow, in February 1973. It was born of a modest professional hope within the Scottish Prison Service that a friendly, respectful, therapeutic approach to these prisoners would tame their violence and make them more manageable when they returned to mainstream prisons. It did not work out like this.

A combination of friendly, therapeutic approaches, the serendipitous introduction of creative arts into the Unit and an open visiting policy opened up possibilities of personal change for a number of the prisoners that had hitherto been beyond their imaginations. It gave them new hope. Once the existence of the Unit became more widely known, through a combination of negative political and press comment on its lax regime, and serving prisoner Jimmy Boyle’s memoir A Sense of Freedom in 1977, penal reformers of various persuasions started to see in the Unit the possibility of positive changes in the penal system as a whole. It seemed to be the living proof – spectacularly so – that rehabilitation, even with notionally unpromising and hopeless prisoners, was feasible if only ridgid assumptions about what prisons needed to be like, and what prisoners were capable of becoming, could be abandoned. Hopes that the BSU would have a transformational effect on the wider penal system went unrealised: the Unit closed in 1994.

In many respects the rise and fall of the Unit epitomised in the starkest of ways the precarious optimism and persistent disappointment that reformers have experienced in respect of countless progressive penal initiatives over the last seventy years. Although this presentation will focus on all the ways in which hope was expressed in the creation and running of the Unit, it will focus particularly on how and why hope is sustained – if indeed it is – in penal reform networks faced with intractable institutionalised opposition to their ideals. Chaired my Dr Victoria Knight, this seminar will conclude with a Q&A.

You can view previous events in this series on our Prison and Probation Playlist on our YouTube channel

This event is open to all. Bookings will close 1 hour prior to the start of the event, and registrants will receive a link to join the online event 24hrs before the event, via their provided email address.

Please contact the DMU Events Office on if you have any questions.