A Newcastle author, illustrator and podcaster used his time in prison to his advantage, helping to catapult him into a successful creative career.

Damien Linnane’s exhibition Broken Chains: Prisoners Unlocking Potential is at Wallsend Public Library. Photo supplied.

When Damien Linnane was 29, he was sent to prison for 10 months for crimes described by the sentencing magistrate as “vigilante action”.

“There was no education and no therapy in prison. I was assessed as too low of a risk of reoffending to be offered rehabilitation. So, I had to really fill the time myself,” said Linnane, who believes his time in prison was the most productive time of his life. 

“I decided to start writing a novel, which was something I always wanted to do but never had the time on the outside. You would be surprised what you can accomplish when you don’t have a lot of distractions.”

Within the first five months, Linnane had completed his thriller novel, Scarred, which was published in late 2019.

Linnane said he struggled with depression in prison, finding himself lost after completing his novel and not knowing what to do with the rest of his time.

“A guy in my block suggested I give drawing a go and gave me his sketch pad,” he said. 

“It turned out to be something I was very good at.”

A portrait of Malcolm X by Damien Linnane.
Photo source: damienlinnane.com

Linnane spent the rest of his time perfecting his skills, drawing portraits and realistic sketches. 

After one of his drawings was published in a prison newsletter, he knew it was something he wanted to pursue. 

Linnane has since completed a master’s degree in Information Studies and works primarily as an archivist for Miromaa Aboriginal Language & Technology Centre and as a cataloguer for Newcastle library.

Linnane also has a solo art exhibition at Wallsend Library titled Broken Chains: Prisoners Unlocking Potential, which features his photorealistic artworks of past prisoners and their accomplishments. 

One of the people Linnane drew was Earlonne Woods, the co-founder of the Ear Hustle podcast. The podcast was the first to be made entirely inside a prison, initially recorded at San Quentin State Prison in California.

After posting the portrait on Instagram and tagging Woods, Linnane said Woods reached out to him. 

“Next thing I know, I had a message from the publishing company Penguin Random House offering me a contract to illustrate the book This is Ear Hustle,” Linnane said.

“I couldn’t believe it. If Earlonne hadn’t sent me that Instagram message, I would have thought it was a prank email!

“They gave me the concept ideas for the illustrations as well as photos. All up, it was around 36 drawings and took me around six to eight weeks to complete. The whole experience really pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me explore my artistic boundaries.”

This is Ear Hustle will be released on October 19 and explores the complexities of life for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.

While Linnane anxiously awaits publication day, he is focusing on a podcast series funded by Newcastle Libraries where he interviews other people about their life both inside prison and after release.

In Broken Chains, Linnane and his guests explore different topics around the prison system, including modern slavery, life beyond prison, mental health and art behind bars.

“When Newcastle Libraries asked if I wanted to turn my exhibit into a podcast, it really caught me off guard,” Linnane laughed.

“I had never really done anything like it before. You know, interviewing people and podcasting. But it’s been an excellent experience.

“We have a whole season one out, and I’m currently working on season two. The purpose of the podcast is really just about raising awareness. I want to inform people about the prison system and the problems that exist and are very often overlooked.”

Damien Linnane recording his podcast Broken Chains at Newcastle Libraries. Photo source: damienlinnane.com

Linnane still finds the time to edit an international prison magazine titled Paper Chained, a journal of writings and artistic expressions from individuals around the world affected by incarceration.

He is also working on refining the draft of his memoir titled Raw. It’s an insight into his life and the events leading up to his time in prison. 

“I feel like my life could go in a few different directions next year. I might have a few more illustration opportunities after This is Ear Hustle is released,” Linnane said. 

“I’m interested in doing a PhD and some deeper research into the prison system, and I have tentatively been offered an opportunity to guest lecture for a first-year Criminology subject at a Queensland university.

“All of the opportunities and interesting things that have happened to me all weren’t planned, so I have no idea what’s next, but I am so looking forward to it, whatever it may be.”

For more information on Linnane or to follow his journey visit his website at damienlinnane.com.

Hayley McMahon