Mon 05 May, 2024

How National Prison Radio changes lives

Anna Owen, a BBC producer on secondment to HMPPS, recently interviewed Ali on his journey to becoming National Prison Radio’s award-winning daily breakfast show host and in turn, how this has transformed his life for the better.

Ali is currently doing a journalism apprenticeship at the BBC World Service and has just won a Bronze award for Best New Presenter at the UK ARIAS (Audio and Radio Industry Awards), something that seemed so far removed from his life six years ago when he was on the induction wing at HMP Pentonville, beginning a 28-month prison sentence.

I was very scared that first night, hearing all the doors slam,” Ali told Anna, “but I knew I wasn’t going to give up. I’d lived through hard times in Somalia so I thought I could survive jail.

Ali was seven when he came to the UK from Somalia with his Mum. They moved into a council house in north London, and he went to the local school.

From a young age, he was his Mum’s carer, and their only source of income was her job seeker’s allowance.

There weren’t many adults in his life, and, during his teens, Ali started skipping school and hanging out with an older crowd, who he says regularly committed crimes.

Eventually, he got involved in a bar fight which led to him being arrested, prosecuted and sentenced.

What he didn’t know on that first night in one of London’s Victorian prisons, was that he was about to discover something that would be, as he puts it, “360 life changing”: National Prison Radio.

National Prison Radio is broadcast 24-hours a day, seven days a week into prisons in England and Wales. Prisoners can tune in via a channel on their in-cell TVs or, in some cases, in-cell laptops.

The station was founded in 2009 by a charity called the Prison Radio Association, in partnership with what was then HM Prison Service, and now has studios in HMP Brixton in London and HMP Styal in Cheshire.

Professional producers work alongside prisoners to make a wide variety of shows, all of which aim to promote positive change, reduce reoffending and prepare people for life after release.

Nearly all programmes are presented by people in prison, or those who have left and this is the key to its success.

Ali and his cellmate bonded over one programme in particular: Free Flow. Presented by Lady Unchained and sponsored by the literacy charity the Shannon Trust, it involves the presenter playing instrumental tracks and inviting prisoners to write their own accompanying lyrics.

Both men loved music and enjoyed the creativity. They waited excitedly for the programme to air the following week, but Ali was disappointed to hear the same kind of music played again. He wanted the new challenge of a different beat.

He was given the chance to complain about it sooner than he expected.

After a few weeks in HMP Pentonville, he was told he was being transferred to another prison. Which is how he found himself on a landing in HMP Brixton being asked by a Prison Radio Association producer for feedback on National Prison Radio.

I’ve got a bone to pick with you about Free Flow,” he remembers telling her, before explaining what he would do with the show if he was in charge. She listened to his feedback and asked Ali if he would like to apply to work in the National Prison Radio studios at the prison.

He did and he was hired.

Ali spent the rest of his sentence working at the radio station, producing Free Flow.

When he left prison, he got a part time job in Sainsbury’s and went back to caring for his Mum.

Then during the Covid lockdown he got a call from the Prison Radio Association inviting him to apply for a job. It led to him presenting two seasons of a sports show for National Prison Radio, this time from outside jail. The Warm-Up was funded by Sport England and guided prisoners through workouts in their cells.

In 2022 it was nominated for Best Sports Programme at the ARIAS, the UK radio industry’s equivalent of the Oscars. “We didn’t win,” Ali told Anna. “But seeing my name up there between talkSPORT and BBC Radio 5 Live made me believe I could actually do this as a career. It was that moment.”  

Ali has now been a full time Prison Radio Association employee for more than three years; he produces and presents the National Prison Radio Breakfast show, Porridge.

Nearly all the men he was in prison with have ended up going back inside.

Ali told Anna, “National Prison Radio saved me from all that. As soon as I got a job with the Prison Radio Association, I knew I couldn’t be around people committing crime. I represent the organisation in everything I do. It’s the voice inside my head guiding me. This is my life now and it’s great. Opportunities are opening up: I won an award last year and I’m going to the BBC to do journalism.”

Anna is a BBC producer on secondment to HMPPS as the Head of Radio and Music in Prisons. She helps with media projects in prisons as part of the corporation’s public service remit. HMPPS gives grant funding support to the Prison Radio Association, and Anna works in the team in the Rehabilitation Directorate which manages it.

One of Anna’s aims is to create opportunities at the BBC for prison leavers with media skills. She says Ali, though, has got a place on the World Service apprenticeship scheme without her help. What she has kindly done however, is introduce him to colleagues and try to smooth his path.

Anna asked him what his advice is for people still in prison who think they could never get to where he is now:

Don’t listen to negativity. Never say that you can’t do something. Everyone starts off without much confidence. Remember that tomorrow can be one day. Or it can be day one.”

National Prison Radio is the world’s first national radio station for people in prison. It’s available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on in-cell TV and reaches over 80,000 people behind bars across England and Wales.

National Prison Radio was founded by the Prison Radio Association – a registered charity. Our shows help people to cope with life inside prison and thrive on release. If you would like to support our work, and enhance the futures of people in prison across the UK you can make a donation at