Tue 05 May, 2024

What’s been happening on The Secret Life of Prisons?

The Secret Life of Prisons is the smash-hit podcast from the charity the Prison Radio Association. Hosted by Phil Maguire OBE (Chief Executive of the Prison Radio Association) and Paula Harriott (Head of Prisoner Engagement at the Prison Reform Trust), The Secret Life of Prisons was devised as a way of allowing listeners to understand the reality of life in the UK’s prison systems. It’s recently launched weekly and we’re taking a look back at the most recent episodes.

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.

We’re catching you up with the latest episodes since the podcast relaunched as a weekly show.

Episode 1: Urgent Notification

– In February 2024 a report on conditions in HMP Bedford by HM Inspectorate of Prisons described the prison as holding people in “some of the worst conditions the inspectors had ever seen“. The inspectors issued an Urgent Notification, which raises immediate, urgent concerns with the Secretary of State for Justice. It was the fifth Urgent Notification issued in 12 months, and HMP Bedford became the third establishment to receive two Urgent Notifications.
– What’s happening in these prisons? And what can be done to improve conditions?
Andrea Coomber KC is a barrister and Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform – a charity that campaigns for better conditions in prisons.
Sobanan Narenthiran runs a social enterprise called Breakthrough which aims to tackle the root causes of crime. Sobanan was imprisoned in 2017 when he was a student at Plymouth University and found himself in HMP Exeter – another prison that has received two Urgent Notifications.

Episode 2: How to get a criminal record without even realising

The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 introduced a fast-track process for delivering justice that deal with the most minor summary offences. It’s called the Single Justice Procedure, and at the time it was said to be simply a modification of existing legal processes. A defendant is sent a notice through the post which states that if you don’t respond with a guilty or not guilty plea within 21 days, the case will be dealt with in your absence and you could receive a criminal record. 
– The journalist Tristan Kirk from the London Evening Standard has uncovered a series of apparent injustices connected to the Single Justice Procedure, and he joins us to tell us the stories of vulnerable people who have received criminal convictions despite having clear mitigation.
– Alongside him is Dr Jo Easton is Interim CEO and Head of Policy at Unlock, which is a charity that supports people with criminal records. She previously worked at the Magistrates Association. She explains why the principle of justice without transparency can be so damaging.

Episode 3: Getting released with a friend on your leg

– Alcohol tags, or sobriety tags, have been being trialled as a way of dealing with alcohol-related disorder for some years. Now, increasingly, they’re being given to people released from prison on licence as a way of reducing their risk of reoffending.
– What are they, how do they know if you’ve been drinking, what’s it like wearing one, and most importantly, do they work?
Scout Tzofiya Bolton was released from prison just a few days ago, and she’s wearing a sobriety tag right now. Danny Herbert successfully completed 6 months on a sobriety tag after being released from prison last year. He’s approaching one year out of prison, which is the longest he’s stayed out of prison for many years.
Patrick Connelly is Head of Contract Management for the Electronic Monitoring programme at His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service.

Episode 4: Hilary vs the Home Office

Hilary Ineomo-Marcus was days away from release from HMP Brixton in 2014 when he found out that he wasn’t going home. His immigration status was being questioned and he was being considered for deportation. Hilary had moved to the UK from Nigeria as a child with his family. He had gone to primary school, secondary school and university in the UK. He had returned to Nigeria once in his whole life. He had married a British woman and had British children. He committed a fraud for which he served a severe punishment in prison. But from 2014 he spent 10 years and tens of thousands of pounds fighting a legal battle with the Home Office to prevent his deportation to a country with which he had no ties.
– Hilary is a Trustee of the Prison Radio Association, and in this episode he describes his experience and is finally is able to tell us about the happy ending to his story.
Miranda Sawyer is a journalist and broadcaster. She is the radio and podcast critic for the Observer newspaper. She has known Hilary for most of his time fighting this battle. She has supported him and become his good friend.
– In this emotional episode, we hear what it takes to battle the Home Office and win.

Episode 5: Prisoners Abroad

– Last episode we heard the story of Hilary, who grew up in the UK and has a British wife and children. After receiving a prison sentence, he almost got deported to Nigeria, a country with which he barely has any connections. 
– Sophie was in the reverse position. Born in the UK but growing up in the US from the age of 6, she had no other links with her birth country. Imprisoned for 12 months, she found herself on a flight to Heathrow with two Homeland Security Agents. Sophie’s story is emotional, but like Hilary’s, it also has a happy ending.
Chris Stacey is Chief Executive of Prisoners Abroad, the charity that helped Sophie and helps thousands of British nationals and their families each year.

Episode 6: How do you plead?

– In January 2024 the Chair of the Bar Council, Sam Townend KC, issued a warning about the plummeting number of guilty pleas being entered at defendants’ first court appearances.
– Phil and Paula zoom in on this crucial moment in the judicial process to understand why this trend could be catastrophic for a justice system already struggling to cope.
Sarah Magill is a criminal defence barrister from Lincoln House Chambers, who talks about what’s happening on the ground in courtrooms across the country.
– Louis was released from prison in 2023 after serving a sentence for drugs offences. He describes how he pleaded and why it then took a year for the matter to be settled.

Episode 7: Bereavement behind bars

– People in prison are more likely to encounter a bereavement than the wider population, and are more likely to have experienced a catalogue of loss.
– Prison chaplains are usually the people who break the news of a death.
– What is it like to experience loss in prison? Why is it so important for prison staff to confirm the accuracy of the news? What risks can these traumatic events pose to prison security? How do prison chaplains handle the repeated trauma of passing on this news?
– The Rev Phil Chadder was Senior Chaplain at HMP Brixton for many years, and estimates he’s broken this sort of news many hundreds of times. He now trains new prison chaplains in how to break the news of a death to a prisoner, teaching how to handle this incredibly difficult and sensitive situation.
– Richie spent many years in prison, including a spell in HMP Brixton where he got to know Phil Chadder. During his time in prison he lost two close relatives.

Episode 8: Behaviour and culture in prisons

Charlie Taylor is His Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons. His role is to report back to the government on conditions in prisons across England and Wales. While his team encounters many serious problems in prisons on their travels (see our recent episode ‘Urgent Notification’), they also see examples of prisons whose culture creates calmness and positive engagement. These prisons tend to have lower levels of violence and are safer, more humane environments. 
– What can we learn from these prisons?
– HM Inspectorate of Prisons has recently published a report, ‘Improving Behaviour in Prisons‘, asking this very question.
Marc Conway contributed to the report. He is a criminal justice consultant through his organisation Fair Justice. He spent many years in and out of prison, encountering the very good and the very bad along the way. He was released for the final time in 2018.

Episode 9: The prison officer

– Under David Cameron’s austerity government between 2010 and 2015, the number of prison officers in England and Wales fell by more than a quarter. Many experienced officers took voluntary redundancy.
– In the years since, the prison service has been recruiting new officers to fill the gaps – often young and inexperienced.
Gen Glaister was one of those recruits, joining the prison service in 2016, aged 23. She says it was an incredibly rewarding job and a privilege to do, but she left after less than two years. She’s written a memoir of her time in the prison service called The Prison Officer: The Inside Story of Life Behind Bars. She is determined to change the public’s approach to people in prison, and to get the UK excited about justice reform.
– Nathan Parker is a mentor and trainer of prison officers, through his work with the Rees Foundation. He was 19 when he was sent to prison for four years, around the same time Gen was working the landings. He was fully aware of how young many of the prison officers were.

Episode 10: National Prison Radio at the ARIAS

– On Tuesday 7 May 2024 National Prison Radio, the world’s first national radio station for people in prison, won an incredible SIX awards at the Radio Academy ARIAS, the ‘Oscars’ of the radio industry.
– Phil and Paula take us into the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, to hang with the National Prison Radio team and soak up the atmosphere.
– Ali Ali won Bronze for Best New Presenter. He’s the host of Porridge, National Prison Radio’s breakfast show. 
– Lady Unchained is a poet, speaker, mentor and the host of Gold award-winning Free Flow, the National Prison Radio show ‘where we play the beat twice so you can get your bars right’. 
– Marianne Garvey is the Managing Editor of National Prison Radio.
– Arthur Hagues is Head of Content Innovation at the Prison Radio Association and producer of some of that award-winning content.

Episode 11: Five things to look out for at the general election

– In the months leading up to the next general election, the Secret Life of Prisons will be bringing you an occasional series featuring guests who have knowledge and insight into politics and the role criminal justice is likely to play as the major players fight for our votes.
– We will be asking each guest to identify five things we should all be looking out for as the political campaigning ramps up.
Louisa James is our first guest. A political journalist and a member of the Westminster lobby, she is the Political Correspondent for ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

Episode 12: The economics of prison

– In the March 2024 budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt said the government will seek to “prioritise proposals that deliver annual savings within five years”. What does this mean for prisons and the criminal justice system, having to deal with rising numbers and facing increasingly complex challenges?
Grace Blakeley is a journalist and author. She previously sat on the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum which is responsible for policy development. Before that she worked for the Institute for Public Policy Research.
Vicky Pryce was a civil service economist and is now Chief Economic Advisor for the Centre for Economics and Business Research. She’s a visiting professor at Birmingham City University and at King’s College London. Vicky served a prison sentence in 2013, where she saw first-hand how the prison system works, and she is now a Trustee of the charity Women in Prison and also Patron of the charity Working Chance, which is the UK’s only employment charity solely for women with convictions.

The Secret Life of Prisons drops every Monday. It’s available wherever you get your podcasts. 

The Prison Radio Association is 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 prison.radio/donate.