National Prison Radio

National Prison Radio, run by the Prison Radio Association (PRA) in partnership with Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), was the world’s first national radio station for people in prison. During the pandemic, it has continued to broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to an audience of over 80,000 people across more than 100 prisons in England and Wales.

Knowledge & Learning Manager Zoë Anderson hears from Tim Colman, PRA’s director of development, about how its service has supported prisoners before and during the crisis.

Before the pandemic

National Prison Radio started in 2009, following smaller scale projects in individual prisons. It has studios in two prisons, HMP Brixton in London and HMP Styal, a women’s prison in Cheshire. A team of professional producers work from these studios every day, creating content alongside a team of prisoners.

The service is available through in-cell television – which means it’s only available to those serving sentences, not to staff. “It has become a central tenet of prison life,” Tim explains. It’s the primary source of information and entertainment, and a way to reduce loneliness.

Before the pandemic, 75% of people in prison listened to the station, with just under half tuning in every day. People listen for an average of ten and a half to 11 hours a week: “It’s deeply ingrained in the daily flow of the prison schedule.” The National Lottery Community Fund first supported the project in 2010, with a grant of £237,278, followed by a Covid-19 Response grant of £188,882.

“We’re a charity, but we also view ourselves as an independent production company,” Tim explains. PRA’s multi award winning work includes documentaries for BBC Radio, podcasts, short films and adverts for the voluntary sector, but National Prison Radio is its main focus. Like a commercial radio station, it offers a varied schedule, from the breakfast show – called 'Porridge' – to music specials and a substantial programme of spoken content.

Major themes include education, skills and employment, mental and physical health and wellbeing, plus coverage of changes in the criminal justice system. “A lot of it is trying to keep people up to date about what’s going on and how that can affect them,” Tim says.

The station works with around 200 partners each year, from charities to government departments, highlighting services and support. It also offers inspiration, and looks at why people end up in prison. Role models are particularly important, “positive shining lights, who can say, ‘I know everything seems impossible at the moment – but I was able to overcome my substance misuse, or to rebuild positive relationships with my family, even though that seemed unattainable when I first started my sentence’.

“Solutions focused journalism is a real through line. We critically examine the responses to social issues, rather than just focusing on the problems. It's a more helpful, proactive and empowering view, and helps to drive more effective citizenship. And we place a huge emphasis on learning from people with lived experience - the real prison experts.”

[Role models are] positive shining lights, who can say, ‘I know everything seems impossible at the moment – but I was able to overcome my substance misuse, or to rebuild positive relationships with my family, even though that seemed unattainable when I first started my sentence’.
Tim Colman, Prison Radio Association

Responding to Covid-19

Just before lockdown, the project pulled its staff out of prison. “Those are very small, close-knit working situations. It was beginning to feel unsafe.” The shift to working from home meant providing equipment. “We were able to make sure that we still had a 24 hour radio station.”

The station prides itself on authentic voice. Being cut off from colleagues in prison was a serious challenge: “We make radio for prisoners by prisoners, and we’ve lost an element of that.” Instead, they turned to former colleagues who had continued their interest in radio after leaving prison. “We were able to use a network of people we have worked with on the inside, who are now getting on with their lives, to reengage them and give them an opportunity to expand on their experience.”

Once lockdown started, prisoners might spend as much as 23 hours a day in their cells, to reduce interaction and the threat of infection. Education and activities were stopped or severely reduced. Family visits were no longer permitted, “which is a real cause for frustration and anger and sadness. We were very conscious of the dangers – is there going to be some kind of flare up, is this going to boil over?”

Across the whole schedule, they’ve worked to address that. “We broadcast a lot of content around mental health, mindfulness, stress – trying to deal with those anxieties.” Information is vital, keeping listeners up to date about both the pandemic and what was happening in the prison system.” They work closely with the prison service and its communications team. “We meet on a weekly basis: this is what’s happening, this is the messaging that we need to get out there, this is what’s changing.”

They have a positive relationship with the prison service, while maintaining editorial independence. Every week, NPR airs a Q&A with Phil Copple, the director general of the prison service, with uncensored questions submitted by prisoners. It’s about sharing information, but also about giving people a sense of agency. “That’s a really important factor, to feel like you’re being listened to, that your concern is taken on board.”

Regular music content is another form of support. “You can’t overstate the importance of the music programmes. It provides entertainment, it’s an outlet for people. The way our schedule is structured, with the music programmes, and the familiar voices, all help to alleviate feelings of frustration, loneliness and worry.”

Messages: connections during lockdown

As other channels closed, the station has offered listeners a chance to connect with others, both inside and outside prison. The weekly Family and Friends show is the only programme that is available outside prison. Prisoners and those outside can send in song requests and messages: both sides can listen and share.

“Once we realised prisons were in total lockdown, we ramped it up, doing two shows a week. That and some of the internal request shows have been inundated.” Across the schedule, message sharing has been a big hit. For mental health awareness week, listeners shared stories and song requests around kindness. Working with prison charity The Butler Trust, the station ran a “hidden heroes” campaign, asking people to nominate prison staff. “When I first heard about it, I thought this could backfire – but we got an amazing reaction. Lots of people were very grateful for the risk the prison staff were taking, coming in every day in a dangerous situation.”

Another campaign focused on policy changes. “We said, ‘Pretend you’re the new head of the prison service, what change would you like to see?’” Responses were considered and thoughtful: “A lot of very positive, sensible ideas. ‘Can we have video conferencing, to keep in touch with families all the time?’”

Listener feedback confirms how much this matters. When lockdown made it harder to collect letters from prisons, NPR set up a voicemail service that people can call free of charge. It’s received more than 10,000 messages during the first three months, overwhelmingly positive about the service.

“Even if we’re asking people for specific contributions to a policy campaign, a lot of people mention the importance of what we’re doing as part of their response – saying thank you for NPR, you’ve been keeping us sane, keeping us entertained. People have to go out of their way – queue up, get on the phone, leave a message. It’s an effort. We’ve always had a good rapport and a good response from our audience, but in the past few months the work feels like it’s been really important and vital.”

A voice for the sector

Because access to prisons has been so limited, National Prison Radio has become a way for charities to keep in touch with their service users. “We’ve been able to take their workshop and make a radio programme about it. We’ve worked with small charities, just to get the message out – ‘We can’t come in at the moment, but we’re thinking about you, we’re looking forward to working with you again.’”

The Fund’s Covid-19 grant meant they could afford to prioritise this work. “We didn’t want to hold the sector to ransom – ‘An advert costs this much’ – knowing that people’s funding was tight. We’ve been able to be a friend to the sector, to say, ‘Don’t worry about that, your message getting out there is more important than us fleecing you for funds you don’t have’. The funding has been a lifesaver for us, but I think it’s had a huge benefit to the sector: we could go above and beyond, and do additional work.”

They’re also building on the work with colleagues who have left prison, aiming to increase opportunity in broadcasting. “Predominantly, the people who work with us in Brixton are BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic]. The wider radio sector has a real problem with diversity. Can we be a positive and disruptive force? What further opportunities can we provide to people who are interested in pursuing this as a career option?”

Looking to the future, Tim sees a chance to challenge mainstream broadcasters.

We make really powerful, high quality radio, with people who have very specifically chaotic experience, who have been in prison, who have had a very far removed upbringing to some of the people who currently make radio for those organisations. So we’re in a good position to say, the quality’s here. We can provide a unique perspective on some key issues. Ours is a blueprint that you can follow.
Tim Colman, Prison Radio Association

Find out more about the work of National Prison Radio, or follow them on Twitter.

Tim Colman spoke to Zoë Anderson on 14 August 2020. This page was last updated on 7 October 2020.