In this blog post, Paula Harriott, Head of Prisoner Involvement at the Prison Reform Trust and one of the presenters of a revealing new audio series, explains why it was important to create The Secret Life of Prisons podcasts.
During a consultation exercise in 2018 to develop the new organisational strategy of the Prison Reform Trust, prisoners told us over and over again that they are deeply concerned about the lack of balanced and accurate representation in the media about the actual reality of prison life.
They didn’t like the dominant public assumptions that the places were holiday camps, or that they were always in the news for being high on assorted drugs, assaulting staff, and each other, rioting and generally being only worthy of being ‘caged like animals’.
Over and over, prisoners told us that it wasn’t like that on the whole at all. They talked about the fear and anxiety of the arrival, the mental and emotional toil of being in the cell and the difficulties of sharing confined spaces, the anguish of the visit, and the simultaneous anxiety and joy of the release. They told us of the power of peer support, the constructive and helpful relationships with staff and the lifelong impact of imprisonment, both the bad and the good.
They told us that these were the untold stories, the untold experiences, the subjugated truth of the reality of life behind bars. When we asked if we should do more popular media work to address this public misconception of the reality of the prison experience, a woman prisoner at HMP Downview summed it up perfectly, “Of course you must, the public is our jury, our jury in the courtroom, and our jury forevermore when we come out of here.”
Thus, The Secret Life of Prisons podcast was conceived; a partnership between Prison Reform Trust and the Prison Radio Association who, together with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, are responsible for National Prison Radio – the world’s first national radio station made by prisoners, for prisoners. The Secret Life of Prisons podcast responds to the obscurity of life behind bars as told by the people who are the experts in the matter, the experts by experience themselves: the prisoners.
It is prisoners who have lived it, yet they rarely get a chance to speak to a wider audience about the reality.
The Secret Life of Prisons podcast aims to take the bars off the windows – and to shine a light into some of the darkest corners of prisons. It is curious, illuminating, moving and informative. It is diverse and fresh. It’s a podcast series that has prisoners involved from the very start, driving the development with the idea and featuring former prisoners as experts throughout.
This is an opportunity for listeners to be challenged, to glimpse the humanity of those incarcerated and to pause to check if what they think they know about prisons is accurate.
The series is produced by the multi-award-winning Jo Meek.
The presenters are:
- Phil Maguire OBE, Chief Executive of the Prison Radio Association
- Paula Harriott (me!), Head of Prisoner Involvement at Prison Reform Trust (@paula_harriott).
As a former prisoner, I also know, from first-hand experience, that the way the public view a prisoner or a prisoner on release, and politicians’ rhetoric, have a long term impact on the life you can lead after prison.
I know, from first-hand experience, that it isn’t just a sentence you serve in prison, but one you serve forever. You have to talk about it when you go for a job interview. You have to say it every time you start a new relationship, to check if a new partner can handle that news. You have to live with the thought that people will continue to judge you for your past.
This podcast series isn’t salacious voyeurism.
This is the Secret Life of Prison; the banal, the pathos, the pain.
In addition to different guests for each episode, we brought together an eclectic mix of regular contributors, across all four pilot episodes:
The satirist and amazing writer of PRISON: A Survival Guide, Carl Cattermole (hear more from him here @prisonism)
The statistician and researcher extraordinaire, Dr Kimmet Edgar from the Prison Reform Trust @PRTuk, who delivers some key thought-provoking numbers and insights to accompany each episode.
The poet and wordsmith Mr Gee who summarises each episode with resounding finesse and impact to leave the audience with key messages that cannot be forgotten. (View more from him here: @mrgeepoet)
We have kick-started this podcast series with insights into four key experiences of the prison journey:
- The Arrival
- The Cell
- The Visit
- The Release
We have set out to bring together a range of people who gave their time to the mission to do something to change the narrative about prison life.
I am really proud of these episodes. I ask you to challenge yourself about what you know about prisons and prisoners, meet some of the people who have lived there, and come back inside with us. Maybe next time you hear somebody who is ill-informed talk about prisons and prisoners, you might want to speak up and direct them to the podcasts to extend their knowledge by spending some time with the experts who have made these podcasts possible.
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