How Grammy award-winning filmmaker Fritzi Horstman is helping Northern Ireland prisoners

By UTV Correspondent Gareth Wilkinson

A new innovative, international project is helping Northern Ireland prisoners turn their lives around and reduce reoffending.

Magilligan Prison houses offenders locked up or committing serious crimes in society.

UTV has been given exclusive access to the prison to see how the Compassion Prison Project helps prisoners face up to trauma they experienced as children.

It’s the brain-child of Grammy award-winning filmmaker Fritzi Horstman.

She believes adverse, damaging experiences in childhood leads to criminal behaviour and prison. Fritzi’s approach has been developed to break the cycle. Her work began in prisons in California and has gone across the world before landing in Northern Ireland. During two days of intensely personal workshops, 30 male prisoners faced up to traumatic events and experiences endured as children.

All prisoners had volunteered to take part and among them were offenders with serious criminal convictions.

Fritzi Horstman. Credit: UTV

Fritzi offered a path to healing. She challenged the group to recognise how their childhood trauma influenced the factors which led them behind bars.

Fritzi is convinced this helps prisoners learn how to make better choices after release.

Through her work in Magilligan, Fritzi found prisoners in Northern Ireland who are also dealing with the damage caused by the violence of the Troubles.

She insists her project can make society safer. “We don’t want any more victims and I know everyone who has been a victim doesn’t want what happened to them happen to anyone else," she said.

One prisoner told UTV the workshops were thought provoking and emotionally draining.

“It brought back a lot of things from my past. It made me realise that the things that happened to me probably led me down the road to where I was taking drugs and I was ending up committing crime.”

He said every prisoner in the workshop had experienced childhood trauma. He’s hopeful they now have a better chance of staying out of jail.

“I would say dealing with it while we are here is the main thing.”

The Prison Service says it plays a central role in reducing reoffending.

That happens by challenging and supporting people to change through support services and programmes. Reoffending in Northern Ireland is reducing. The Governor of Magilligan Prison says programmes like the Compassion Prison Project help that.

Gary Milling said: "What we are about is trying to change people’s lives so that when they leave they don’t come back.”

Fritzi Horstman described Magilligan as the best prison she has visited.

She is encouraging other jails to replicate Magilligan's commitment to rehabilitation.

The work Fritzi began in Magilligan will be continued over the next few months by the charity Start 360 which works with adult offenders.

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