An editor’s dream: a captive readership and free reporters

Wrongfully convicted, Sean Hodgson’s path to freedom began with ‘Inside Time’, says Ian Griggs
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The Independent Online

Had it not been for the prisoners' newspaper Inside Time, Sean Hodgson, who walked free last week after 27 years of wrongful imprisonment for a murder he did not commit, would still be serving time today. It was there that he saw an advert for a firm of solicitors specialising in criminal appeals. He got in touch and, with the help of fresh DNA evidence, the firm campaigned successfully to prove his innocence. "We are not seeing it as a victory for the newspaper," says John Roberts, 60, a director of the paper. "For someone to be released after 27 years for something he didn't do is a victory for everybody."

Inside Time's genesis came in a recommendation by Lord Woolf, a High Court judge, in his report in 1990 into the Strangeways Prison riot, when he lamented a lack of communication among prisoners. "The public doesn't know what goes on inside and even prisoners from different wings don't talk to each other so that became the reasoning behind starting the paper," says Roberts.

It began life as a quarterly publication in December 1990 under the umbrella of the New Bridge Foundation, a charity started in 1956 to create links between offenders and the community. Inside Time quickly found a captive audience among the 83,000-strong prison population of England and Wales. More than two-thirds of the content is generated by prisoners, all of them unpaid.

"We receive hundreds of letters and articles written by prisoners each week and I am constantly amazed at the talent which comes through," he said. "Sometimes they bring tears to my eyes or make me roar with laughter. Some of them have a real ability to get an angle on a story, although I suppose they have time to think about it."

One reason prisoners turn their hands to journalism is because job on the outside are thin on the grounds for them, so learning to be a self-employed writer gives them a genuine opportunity. The issues raised in their articles range from the mundane, such as prison food, to serious problems like indeterminate sentences.

The paper grew from 12 black-and-white pages in the 1990s to up to 60 with colour today. But it became a victim of its own success, and a funding gap had opened up by 2003. "A solicitor approached us and asked if he could place an advert, which we accepted for a modest fee," said Roberts. More solicitors followed and the paper, which had relied on New Bridge for funding, made money for the first time, and gave the profits back to the charity.

The paper goes out monthly to prisons throughout Britain and the Channel Islands. A handful of the 46,000 copies printed find their way to Thailand and America, where some Britons are held.

Eight part-time staff, including Rachel Billington, the daughter of the late prison campaigner Lord Longford, produce the paper from an office in Southampton before it's printed in Peterborough. Around 30 prisoners regularly contribute, either by email or by posting in their hand written copy.

Roberts first became involved with prisoners while he was managing director of a distribution company. One day in 1980, having failed to fill a vacancy through the local job centre, he went out for a drink. "I met a probation officer that evening and he asked me if I thought people should be given a second chance," he said.

Roberts said of course he did, but admitted that he tended to leave it to others to actually offer such opportunities. He allowed himself to be persuaded by the probation officer, though.

Roberts was innitially hesitant when he met his first ex-prisoner. "I thought 'oh my god'. But the more I talked to him, the more I began to see that, behind the face, was a man who did not feel good about himself." Roberts was rewarded with one of the most loyal employees he has ever had, and went on to hire nine more former prisoners, at the same time as amassing enough money to allow him to ease up at the age of 40.

"I was trying to decide what to do next with my life after having achieved my goals and I reflected that the thing I was best at, and enjoyed most, was working with people," he says of his switch to the voluntary sector (from which he takes a modest salary).

"I firmly believe that you have to create a situation where someone has more to lose by going back to a life of crime, such as quality of life, selfrespect and a job. If you are not looking over your shoulder because of something you have done, suddenly, you have a lot more to lose."

And as Sean Hodgson restarts his life on the outside, Roberts can add righting wrongs to the list of his, and his newspaper's, achievements.