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Prisoners relish freedom of airwaves: Women serving life at Durham jail are learning to produce their own radio programmes. Nick Holdsworth reports

Nick Holdsworth
Thursday 11 March 1993 00:02 GMT

WOMEN prisoners serving life sentences for murder, terrorism and other serious offences at Durham prison could be among the first inmates to run a radio station within a British jail.

In a pioneering scheme, inmates on H wing - Britain's only high-security wing for women - are learning how to produce radio programmes, researching, reporting and writing the material themselves.

The prison education department scheme, backed by a pounds 3,000 grant from Northern Arts, is being managed by Jane Harris, writer-in-residence there.

She hopes material from the course, attended by five of the 20 women on H wing, will eventually lead to inmates running their own community radio station: the first inside a British jail.

But the first step is to prepare an hour-long programme for broadcast on Wear FM, a local community station. Male category B prisoners, on remand or serving sentences for less serious offences, will also be able to attend the course separately.

Ms Harris said: 'I think it is important they have a voice, (prisoners) are very cut off from the outside world; not a lot of people know what happens inside a prison.

'They are in prison as punishment, not for punishment. Anything that can be done like this project to help them learn a skill is very worthwhile,' she said.

Fears that what the women say may be distorted by biased editing had been overcome by allowing each woman to keep her own tape reel between sessions. Ms Harris said the aim of the course was to give the participants a chance to express themselves and learn skills to raise their self-esteem. One participant - Beverley, 36, who is serving a life sentence - has already started writing a soap opera and wants to write for radio when she is released.

She hopes the project will promote understanding. 'I don't think you can understand what any of us are doing or going through until you have been in here. We have got the time - you've got nothing else to do. You either do something creative or become a nervous wreck,' she said.

The women 'lifers' live in cells in a small block off a courtyard. They have a few more comforts than male inmates serving shorter sentences in the main prison, including a room in which they socialise.

A small room has been fitted out for the radio classes, with soft, comfortable chairs and book jackets stuck on the walls.

But the barred windows and view of the imposing granite face of the main prison - opened in 1819 - are a constant reminder that the women are in for a long stretch.

Jim Faulkner, the prison's education officer, said care was taken to account for all the equipment used on the course, including razor blades for splicing tape. The question of censorship of the material produced had not yet arisen, 'but being in a prison we have to be sensitive'.

Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, welcomed the possibility of a community radio station in the prison. 'We think it should be a forerunner for radio stations for all prisons.'

(Photograph omitted)

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