Wed 04 Apr, 2020

BBC Radio 4 is Unchained

On Thursday 23 April 2020 at 11.30am, BBC Radio 4 will broadcast a documentary produced by the Prison Radio Association entitled Unchained.

It marks the network radio presenting debut of poet and long-time National Prison Radio presenter Brenda Birungi, aka Lady Unchained.

She’s written a guest article for us about making the programme.

“In July 2016 I first reached out to National Prison Radio.

“I’d been advised to do so by the very talented poet Joelle Taylor. I’d been in prison before the station really took off, and I never truly knew what their work does for people serving time in prison.

“I soon found out how amazing the National Prison Radio team truly are, when I was invited as a guest to on their monthly show Outside In. It’s produced by BBC volunteers in Broadcasting House in London, and stepping into that building as a known ex-offender was unreal. When you have a criminal record entering buildings like that seems impossible, but they made it possible for me.

“They then invited me to their annual conference and asked if I could perform some of my poetry. At this point I told people I was poet, but was not sure I fully believed it yet. For the first time I was in a room full of people who believed in supporting, employing and promoting people with lived experience of the justice system. And they paid me to be there!

“For the first time my Unchained idea was starting to feel like a reality.

“Fast forward several years … when I was asked to work with the amazing producer Jess Lawson, to interview women who are using Women’s Centres as part of their journey through the criminal justice system for National Prison Radio.

“We visited Brighton, Manchester and Gloucester, interviewing the amazing women who access the centres each day, sharing their stories of how they first came into contact with the centre.

“After each visit, Jess and I would reflect on what we’d heard. We realised that although we’d heard many stories of violence and crime against the women, never once did they say they had received justice for the things that had happened to them.

“We spoke to staff members who are dedicated to ensuring the women get the best support and advice to help rebuild their lives. My mission has always been to prove that there is life after prison, so to see spaces like this gave me hope and purpose. In the end, isn’t that what we all need?

“I got a call from Andrew Wilkie, the PRA’s Deputy Chief Executive, just before Christmas to tell me that BBC Radio 4 are commissioning us to make a documentary for them about women in prison, and Women’s Centres.

“I tried hard to stay professional on the phone to Andrew, but when he told me the show would be called Unchained, my whole prison sentence flashed before my eyes. Could I really be re-writing my ex-offender label? It’s a label I could once barely even speak about without getting angry or breaking down into tears.

“I was never truly prepared for the emotional impact of interviews for the programme. The reality of hearing women’s stories first-hand triggered emotions I thought I had worked through, and pain I can only explain with my poetry.

“It wasn’t easy to revisit those emotions. We supported each other through the interviews, with laughter, a smile across the room and a nod to show each we are in this together.

“Because after everything we had all been through, we knew we had to make this programme for the women still living in the  prisons we left behind, the women whose voices are still being silenced and will continue to do so if we don’t speak up for them.”

 “We can never truly become Unchained if we forget what we were trying to be Unchained from to begin with.” Lady Unchained