Fri 03 Mar, 2020

National Prison Radio: a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 outbreak presents significant challenges in keeping a 24-hour radio station on-air, at a time when clear information and support for people in prisons is more important than ever.

Through collaboration, diligence and dedication, National Prison Radio is rising to those challenges. We are providing a richer and more important service today than we ever have.

At the time of writing this, prisons are running dramatically reduced regimes.

Many people in prison are locked up for more than 20 hours per day. Usual education and training activities aren’t running, or are severely curtailed. People whose prison jobs are essential, like those who work in the kitchens and those who keep prisons clean, are having to work in extremely difficult circumstances.

Prison visits have been cancelled for everybody’s wellbeing, but a lack of access to family and loved ones quickly takes its toll on everyone concerned. Despite the best efforts of the authorities, access to prison phones is limited.

Chaplaincy services are dramatically reduced. Pastoral care is still available, but as in the community, regular faith services are all cancelled.

Accurate information about the impact on prison life, and about what’s happening in the outside world, is hard to come by. Prison staff are working incredibly hard to support people in prison and keep them informed, but they are stretched and sometimes unable to access accurate information themselves.

This is where National Prison Radio is stepping up to deliver a service that is even more vital than usual.

We have opened our freephone line. It is available to everyone in prison via the wing phones, to allow our listeners to keep in touch with us via voicemail. In the past week alone we’ve received well over 1,000 calls. These messages go into our programmes across the schedule – whether they’re questions to be put to the experts and those who run prisons, messages of support to each other, messages of thanks to prison staff (we get lots of these), song requests or shout outs.

We’ve adapted our broadcast schedule to provide even greater support to our listeners.

All of this programming is being produced in virtual studios while our regular studios inside HMP Brixton and HMP Styal are inaccessible. We’re desperately sad that our regular team of prisoner-presenters isn’t able to contribute while things are locked down, but instead we’re engaging our hugely talented group of people who have been through NPR’s doors and have now been released.

And our staff team are working tirelessly to produce regular programmes to support and encourage people behind bars during what is a time of almost intolerable difficulty and pressure.

We are an independent charity. We fiercely guard our journalistic integrity and editorial independence. But we couldn’t operate effectively without the collaboration and support of a range of partners, not least of which is the Prison Service. We are working closely in partnership with HMPPS at this time to ensure we can confirm the latest accurate information is being broadcast directly into prison cells at a time when few other interventions are available to the more than 80,000 people currently living behind bars in England and Wales.

National Prison Radio is a lifeline for people behind bars, and during times of crisis we step up.