Two inmates at Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton, in London, broadcast on National Prison Radio. (Photograph courtesy of Phil Maguire) 

His radio debut may have been only a few months ago, but in that time Philip, a young man with a broad grin and a genial delivery that holds your attention, has come a long way. “When I listen [to my early shows], I can hear that I was a bit overexuberant. Now, I take my time and make sure that my recording levels are right, that things fade in and out correctly,” he says.

Philip’s progress from novice to accomplished broadcaster is exactly what you would expect of a keen intern on a national radio station. But to appreciate the measure of his achievement, you need to understand its context. For Philip is an intern in the literal sense; he is a prisoner at Her Majesty’s Prison Brixton, in the Brixton district of London, England.

From his window at the radio studio, the view is bleak: It’s the prison yard where inmates exercise surrounded by coils of barbed wire. But inside, prospects are bright nonetheless. National Prison Radio, Philip’s employer, is an awardwinning station. The service is the brainchild of the Prison Radio Association (PRA), a UK charity. It’s based at HMP Brixton, a men’s prison dating from the 19th century, and HMP Styal, a women’s prison near Manchester. From these two locations, National Prison Radio broadcasts to more than 100 prisons in England and Wales, aided only by 13 radio professionals, hired by the PRA to work with the prisoners. (For security reasons, and to avoid offending victims, the station doesn’t broadcast on a publicly available frequency.)

When he regains his liberty, Philip plans to study screenwriting, financing his studies with factory work. Even if his ambitions don’t lead to a media-related career, he knows that his radio experience will have improved his employability overall. Turning out broadcasters is not PRA’s mission. Its goal is to teach the 80 to 90 prisoners who work at the station each year some transferable skills—and, through the programs they produce, to help the station’s 61,000 listeners turn their backs on crime as well.

Julia, today a successful manager with a company that provides training courses for ex-offenders, listened to and worked on the station while at Styal prison. “In prison you don’t feel valued at all,” she says. “Having a radio station that’s entertaining and informative gives you back a sense of belonging to a community and the normality that comes from knowing that you’re not isolated.”

Changing Mind-Sets

National Prison Radio’s origins date back to 1994, when Roma Hooper and Mark Robinson, two citizens saddened by a spate of suicides at a young offenders’ institution in the London area, hit on the idea of a prison radio station to keep prisoners company at night, and began one there. That station flourished, but as the years went by, Hooper increasingly felt that the idea had untapped potential. In pursuit of that potential, she established the PRA in 2006, and Phil Maguire, a radio producer and reporter, left the BBC to become its CEO.

Initially, the organization focused on helping prisons to create their own local radio projects. But the results were mixed, and with only a handful of prisons participating, most prisoners did not benefit. Convinced that a well-resourced service, supported by radio professionals, had the potential to change lives, Maguire pitched for the means to create a national radio service accessible to prisoners all over England and Wales. His boldness paid off. In 2009, the PRA and the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which has charge of prisons, became partners, and the UK Ministry of Justice agreed to fund the roof satellites needed for prisoners to tune in to prison radio from their cells, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The endeavor began with the modest aim of providing prisoners with entertainment and companionship. But even before the PRA got going, Maguire and Hooper had concluded that where radio could really make its mark was in preparing prisoners to reenter society. That meant fine-tuning the programming—limiting radio banter and ensuring an emphasis on encouraging listeners to use their time in prison productively.

It’s not always easy to engage listeners who are angry, resentful, and often in no mood to hear radio broadcasts that present a critical view of prisoner behavior, Maguire acknowledges. “We deliver lots of messages to prisoners, some very welcome, some not so welcome.” But that’s where prisoner involvement pays off, as two recent programs demonstrated. The programs featured prison staff talking about how being assaulted by prisoners had affected them.

Given the us-versus-them mentality that often prevails between prisoners and their guards, the risk was that the audience would turn a deaf ear. Fortunately the program’s creators saw past the officers’ uniforms and, with their skillful interviewing, helped those listening to do the same. As Andrew Wilkie, director of radio and operations for the PRA, reflects, “The prisoners we work with are people who have absolutely accepted that there are things that they need to change in their lives, and who want to be a positive influence.”

Partnership and Programming

Although its primary purpose is to reduce re-offending, National Prison Radio features a range of programming, matching content to the audience’s needs throughout the day: an upbeat breakfast show to put prisoners in a positive mood; music request shows; and programs offering practical advice on careers, health and well-being, kicking addictions, and healing relationships.

Producing all of that programming might sound like a stretch for a small charity, but partnering enables the PRA to use its resources effectively. One example is the Books Unlocked initiative, a collaboration with the National Literacy Trust and the Booker Prize Foundation that enables National Prison Radio to broadcast audioserializations of Man Booker Prize-shortlisted books. Through the partnership, inmate-broadcasters also interview authors on the air, and inmates who are interested can receive free copies of featured books.

Partnerships such as this one are essential to the PRA’s success. But arguably, its most important relationship is with the head of prison radio at NOMS, whose job it is to marry up NOMS’ priorities with the content that National Prison Radio broadcasts. The PRA and the head of prison radio together ensure that any material broadcast by National Prison Radio complies with a set of editorial guidelines that NOMS developed. Broadcasts must not, for example, compromise prison security or contain music or speech that glamorizes crime.

Abiding by guidelines does not, however, stop National Prison Radio from asking hard questions of the prison system. Governor’s Questions, a spot in which prisoners quiz the heads of the prisons, is one example. Topics have included overcrowding, delays in the release of prisoners into home detention, and the conduct of prison officers. “For me it was an opportunity to push a line of questioning and get a straight answer,” says Hilary, a former inmate and National Prison Radio presenter, who now runs his own Internet radio station. “The answer mightn’t always have been something that prisoners wanted to hear, but it was at least an answer.”

Sustainability and Lasting Impact

In its early days, the PRA was funded by small grants from trusts and foundations. By 2012, however, Maguire and his colleagues realized that they needed to broaden their source of funds. So the charity set up PRA Productions, a professional production house that produces advertisements and sponsored programs for government departments and charities that use the station to promote their services and messages to the prison population.

PRA Productions’ employees also make podcasts and audio content for corporate websites, conferences, and events. And they create radio documentaries for the BBC, focused mostly—though not always—on topics related to criminal justice. “Having a documentary broadcast on BBC networked radio is something most radio producers dream of, so to be able to offer our staff that opportunity is great for their development and for our reputation as a production house,” says Vicky Rouse, director of development at PRA. From a standing start three years ago, PRA Productions now contributes around 37 percent of the PRA’s annual budget of roughly £740,000 (approximately $970,000), and its contribution is expected to continue rising. Government grants account for an additional 40 percent, and grants from trusts and foundations supply the remainder.

This formula bodes well for the long term, and that’s good news because National Prison Radio is popular and respected. According to market research, 76 percent of prisoners tune in for an average of 10.4 hours each week, and 77 percent of listeners say they trust what they hear on National Prison Radio.

But does the program reduce re-offending? That’s a question Maguire cannot answer definitively because the charity hasn’t found a way to separate its impact from the myriad other interventions, courses, and counseling sessions that prisoners experience in prison. What it does measure is how its campaigns boost awareness and use of the services of its partners that are featured on National Prison Radio. “If we’re able to increase referrals to an organization that’s doing really great work, then we think we’re contributing to a reduction in re-offending,” says Rouse. A case in point is a campaign for NOMS highlighting the dangers of synthetic drugs. The campaign was heard by 79 percent of listeners, 35 percent of whom said their behavior was influenced by it.

The early choices that people make after their release from prison often decide what happens to them next. But, as Maguire points out, leaving prison can be isolating. “As prisoners they had access to a whole range of services, including National Prison Radio, that once on the outside, they lose.”

The PRA plans to address that gap with the launch of a website and smartphone app, called Straightline, designed to help former prisoners make positive choices as they adjust to life outside. The new service will feature insights from former prisoners who have rebuilt their lives and tips on what to do if people find themselves struggling. For some newly released prisoners, there will also be opportunities to work as production team members at Straightline centers.

“[We] concentrated our efforts inside prisons for 10 years,” says Maguire. “[Now] we’re moving beyond the prison gate.”

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