Prison Radio Shines

from by Parmy Olson
LONDON--Johnny Cash made a mint when he recorded part of his 1968 album At Folsom Prison amidst the whoops and shouts of a roomful of inmates. Today's entertainment for prisoners is a more sobering affair: interviews with politicians, hard-hitting programs about suicide and self-harming. But it too is finding success.

A tiny prison radio station in South London is up for four prestigious Sony awards on Monday night, putting it alongside the some of the top talent of the BBC and other commercial radio stations in the United Kingdom.

Electric Radio in Brixton Prison is run by the Prison Radio Association,, a British charity, and broadcasts to just 800 inmates--but it has a rich array of programming. Weekly discussion programs about taboo subjects such as self-harming, mental and sexual health and the prison environment are mixed in with a daily dose of editorials and of course, music. The studio is located under the prison chapel and manned by inmates.

Its nominations include an award for talk radio and the all-important Interview Award. For this, one of Brixton Prison's inmates interviewed former U.K. government minister Jonathan Aitken, who was sentenced to 18 months in Belmarsh prison in 1999 for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

The interviewer was half-way through a four-year sentence when he conducted the interview, and the two men were "socially, culturally and educationally poles apart," the Prison Radio Association says. But while Aitken comes across as well-spoken and slightly pompous, Tis' is not afraid to ask probing questions, creating an intriguing interview in which Aitken opens up about his divorce, bankruptcy and experiences in jail.Brixton is one of 20 prisons in the U.K. that operate its own radio station or offers training in the area. The first was established in the Feltham Young Offenders Institution in 1994 by the Prison Radio Association when its young inmates called for its establishment. The organization got legal charitable status in June 2006.

There is as yet no clear evidence that prison radio contributes to rehabilitation, but Electric Radio Brixon, launched in November 2007, claims it is a useful source of information for prisoners with literacy problems and does help with rehabilitation.

An clip from the station is here.

The Prison Radio Association says it is working on the development of a National Prison Radio Service, with the potential to eventually reach every prisoner in England and Wales.AND FROM THE GUARDIAN UK:
It was a gig a lot of people would have paid a lot of money to see. Mick Jones, formerly of the seminal punk band the Clash, playing an acoustic and oh-so-gentle version of the band's classic stomper Should I Stay or Should I Go - and Billy Bragg, unchallenged master of conscience folk rock giving a deliciously cutting rendition of Rotting on Remand - "I said there's no justice/ as they led me out the door/ and the judge said 'this ain't a court of justice son/ this is a court of law'."

Introduced by Radio 1 DJ Bobby Friction, the two national treasures were performing live at the launch of Electric Radio Brixton - the first prison radio station in the UK to broadcast via satellite, and the first to broadcast 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

It is an ambitious project. But Phil Maguire, chief executive of the Prison Radio Association, a charity founded 18 months ago by Roma Hooper and Mark Robinson (who were instrumental in the setting up of the radio station in Feltham Young Offenders Institute 13 years earlier), has even more ambition yet to fulfil. "We want to see the establishment of a national prison radio network," he says, "serving every prison cell in England and Wales and broadcasting material produced not just in Brixton, but produced by prisoners serving sentences in prisons all around the country."

Maguire is a determined champion. His charity organisation is currently working with over 40 prisons. So far at least 15 have radio studios or radio training facilities. "I've loved radio for as long as I can remember," he says. "Ever since I was a little boy curling up at night under my bed clothes with my transistor. I love the way you can watch it with your eyes closed. It makes me laugh, sometimes makes me cry and almost constantly makes me think."

But why prison radio? He gives me a look of incredulity.

"It's an all singing, all dancing bulletin board," he says. "Radio is a phenomenal communications tool. In here, its ability to inform and educate takes on a whole new level. It supports the regime, creating opportunities for positive and fruitful dialogue between prisoners and staff. It enhances education provision and prisoner engagement activities. It can reach everybody, the young the old, men and women, the lonely and the disenfranchised."

Whilst watching the musicians through the studio glass, listening to their banter over the loudspeakers, we mingle by tables that have been set with canapés and soft drinks. There is a good turn out of invited guests, all thrilled and upbeat about the event; it is after all, historical.

Brixton is a difficult prison and it's to Governor Paul McDowell's credit that he has been able to find the energy and the commitment to support Electric Radio Brixton. Staff shortages mean that too many people are left locked in their cells for overly long periods. A number of prisoners are mixing with the guests, chatting freely. "There are some good things here," says 'T' who has spent four years in Brixton so far, "but there's too much bang-up - by the time they let us out everybody wants to fight."

Some prisoners are involved as producers of the radio station and I'm delighted when I spot an old friend, multi-talented Peter Wayne, a prodigious writer who, during his many stints inside, used to pen a wonderfully decadent column for Prospect magazine on prison life and who inspired my own efforts in the Guardian. He tells me he is back in on a shoplifting charge, "I'll be back out around Feb," he says. I tell him that he looks as well as I've ever seen him.

Now in early middle age, Wayne should be enjoying a comfortable life after a successful creative and contributing career. Instead, his close relationship with the demon heroin has kept his true colours from us, and left him spending the better part of his life haunting prison landings.

"I feel safe in here," he says cheerfully. I'm sad, but thrilled to see he is heavily involved with the new radio station. Alongside Bobby Friction he is next in the studio, interviewing Billy Bragg. Their chat is good humoured and I'm amazed at Wayne's professionalism. Bragg is a genial interviewee and talks zealously about the need for an emphasis on rehabilitation in prisons. "That's the only way to create fewer future victims," he says. He talks about the charitable foundation he has set up called Jail Guitar Doors, named after the B-side of the 1978 Clash single Clash City Rockers.

Bragg wants to use the transformative power of music to help change lives in prison; to that end he visits prisons around the country, donating musical instruments. "Music is a great way of communicating," he says. "It's a way of finding out where you are, who you are, and can help you to put something back."

Mick Jones is a close friend of Bragg's and gave him the first donation towards the purchase of instruments for prisoners by Jail Guitar Doors. "I was born in Brixton," says Jones, "I grew up looking at this place and now I'm pleased to be helping." Both men exude a passionate ability to empathise with the underdog which will have endeared them greatly to the men behind their doors in Brixton prison.

Before leaving Jones conducts a final singalong of Should I Stay. He's laughing and obviously having a great time. Outside the studio the guests are tapping feet and bobbing heads. A female prison officer is swaying. Electric Radio Brixton is touching souls and rocking its message through time and space.

· This article was amended on Monday December 3 2007. The PRA was not in fact set up 13 years ago. It was Radio Feltham (Radio Feltz), the UK's first prison radio station that was set up 13 years ago. The PRA was founded 18 months ago. This has been corrected.