Inside Story: Prison media
Monday 18 February 2008
More than a dozen small-scale, prisoner-produced magazines are written, edited, published and distributed within British prisons today. Their frequency and longevity is often unpredictable, however, as both are dictated by the enthusiasm, commitment and prison term of would-be editors and prison governors' approval and support.
Many have been launched by writers in residence, 22 of whom are working in British prisons as part of the Writers in Prison Network (WIPN), an Arts Council-backed organisation launched 16 years ago. Titles such as LocDown, by prisoners at HMP Highpoint in Suffolk, feature a mix of personal reflections, fiction, poetry and artworks and are distributed only within the prison where they are produced.
Over the past five years WIPN has been working with the NUJ to roll out journalistic training to prisons across the UK. The NUJ has produced a course for prisoners called "Pathways to Journalism". Where this course is available, prisoner magazines – such as HMP Wandsworth's It's Wandsworth or Innit, by women prisoners at HMP Styal – are produced to professional journalistic standards. "All content included in prisoner magazines must follow general rules – such as not glorifying crime, not being racist or sexist," says WIPN secretary Pauline Bennett.
Arguably the highest profile prison-zine is Not Shut Up, a title launched two years ago by film writer Hugh Stoddart, one-time writer in residence at HMP Brixton, which is now distributed in eight prisons. "We set out to produce a title outside any one, single prison to create a stable and long-term platform for prisoners to express themselves," says Stoddart. "We wanted it to look good – to be a product prisoners wanted their work to appear in, so we use a professional designer to make it look as good as we can." Not Shut Up is published quarterly with a print run of 5,000 and currently runs to 52 pages. Although ad-free, it is starting to generate subscription revenue, which Stoddart says he is keen to grow.
The best prison magazines – and prisoners' writing – are honoured each year by the Koestler Awards, run by prison arts charity The Koestler Trust
The Home Office is considering a proposal for a National Prison Radio Network. The idea has been developed by the Prison Radio Association (PRA), a not-for-profit organisation established in 2006 to promote the development of prison radio throughout the UK. The PRA is backed by Jon Snow and Shami Chakrabarti.
"Prison radio has two main benefits," PRA chief executive Phil Maguire explains. "The first is engaging offenders in education – a key issue given that the average literacy level of offenders nowadays is the same as that of an 11-year-old."
The second benefit is improving communication between prison authorities and prisons. He says: "No one working in prisons can deny that the prison service has never been very good at communicating with prisoners. Radio has already proven itself to be the ideal prison communications platform."
Fifteen prisons now run radio operations ranging from occasional courses in radio production techniques to full-blown prison stations broadcasting round the clock. A further 40 prisons are now working with the PRA to set up their own radio services.
Prison radio in the UK began with the launch of Radio Feltham (pictured left) in 1994, which is now known as Radio Feltz. The station, of which the Radio 1 and MTV presenter Tim Westwood, right, is a patron, was conceived by advertising executive Mark Robinson and Roma Hooper, a fundraiser and entrepreneur, who were concerned about the welfare of people at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution.
Hooper then approached the BBC for support. The BBC seconded Phil Maguire, a former teacher and social worker who was then working as a producer on Jeremy Vine's Radio 2 show, to co-ordinate its involvement. Maguire worked with BBC West Midlands to set up prison radio stations in Birmingham and HMP Hewell Grange in Redditch.
In July 2006 the BBC launched the Prison Radio Project at HMP Winson Green – through which it plans to provide training to prisoners and donate redundant radio equipment to prisons within the catchment areas of its 39 local radio stations.
Inside Time, the only national newspaper for the UK's prison population, was launched in 1990 following the riot at Manchester's Strangeways Prison and Lord Woolf's subsequent report suggesting one cause was the prisoners' lack of a voice.
The title was set up by New Bridge Foundation, an organisation co-founded by the late Lord Longford in 1956 to create links between offenders and the community. Today, Inside Time is published 12 times a year with a print run of 42,000.
"The most important part of the paper is the mail-bag section," says John Roberts, operations director. "We work hard to answer every letter, forward queries to the relevant organisations to answer, and publish those we believe will be most relevant to the rest of the readership."
Over half of each issue is written by serving prisoners. Regular columnists also include the novelist and journalist Rachel Billington, Lord Longford's daughter, who also works at the title one day a week. Inside Time's editorial team also includes John Bowers, a writer and speaker on crime and punishment who also spent a total of 15 years in prison. The paper's website, aimed at prisoners' family and friends, can be seen at www.insidetime.org.
Two years ago the voluntary organisation Women in Prison (WIP) launched a glossy magazine for female prisoners, called WIP.
"Women in prison are a vulnerable group," says the editor, Josephine Hocking. "Many suffer from mental illness, or a past history of mental abuse or domestic violence."
WIP set out to give Britain's 4,000 female prisoners a platform for debate, a useful source of information and support, and, just as importantly, a really good read.
Today, WIP is a 52-page full-colour glossy published quarterly. It is mainly written by female prisoners, former prisoners and others serving community sentences. Four thousand copies of each issue are sent free to women's prisons throughout England.
T.I.M.E TV, the UK's first prisoner-led TV channel, was launched at HMP Downview in April 2006. The all-women prison in Sutton, Surrey, holds 350 prisoners and uses the channel, which is available on the prison's in-cell TV system, to inform, educate and offer work opportunities designed to help prisoners change their lives for the better.
T.I.M.E TV was developed by Media for Development (MFD), a not-for-profit organisation that uses media as an educational tool for various isolated communities. MFD began working in prisons in 2004, when it set up a training programme offering prisoners a chance to study for a BTEC qualification in media studies.
"The idea is to use media as the hook to get prisoners interested and engaged with learning, rather than to train prisoners for a career in the media on release – though a number of ex-prisoners have done just that," MFD chief executive James Greenshields says.
T.I.M.E TV provides entertainment, information and a creative outlet for Downview's femaleprisoners, working alongside prison officers (see TV set, left). Prisoners work to TV industry standards and are tutored by professionals in a dedicated in-prison media training unit.
Many – though not all – UK prisoners now have TV sets in their cells. The positive effects are widely acknowledged: from staying in touch with outside events to challenging feelings of alienation and depression.
Upgrading in-cell TV infrastructure ahead of the digital switchover in 2012 will pave the way for a national prison TV network, some believe. Such a service, produced for – and sometimes by – prisoners could be broadcast centrally by satellite.
The independent company Inside Job Productions (IJP), set up by MFD in 2006, offers work placements to HMP Downview female prisoners who are doing media training – jobs as runners or as assistant producers on a range of original TV productions made for clients in the voluntary sector. The company has worked with more than a dozen prisons, and ploughs the profits back into MFD's training operations.
One current project, Ridin' Pen, is a series of eight films by juvenile offenders. IJP staged workshops with participants to brainstorm, storyboard, develop and then produce ideas that, where possible, are narrowcast to prisoners via in-cell TV.
"A growing number of prisoners now operate internal, closed-loop TV systems, which means rather than feeding prisoners a diet of TV soaps, additional material can be provided that is more meaningful and relevant to a prison population," says Greenshields.
At Downview, this means a variety of original content, including debates, a bi-weekly show on prison life, and interviews with key prison staff.
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