Daniel Lee hears how a prison radio station is helping inmates learn skills to cut down on reoffending and integrate them into society after they have completed their sentences
Michael refuses the offer of a cigarette and then quickly changes his mind.
"Can I take one for later?" he asks, as he walks round the lecture rooms and studios that are home to Radio Wanno, a broadcaster with a difference.
It is run by Michael and other prisoners as part of an innovative education programme for inmates in Wandsworth Prison in southwest London.
"Radio Wanno showed me how to express myself, how to be a team player, be a leader and a peacemaker," says the 39-year-old, who is nearing the end of a 30-month stretch in jail. "It has given me the strength to stand up in front of the prison and speak. I've even appeared in our version of Stars in their Eyes and in a panto. Before, I wouldn't have dreamt of doing anything like that."
Michael outlines his optimistic view as he continues walking the corridors of the category B prison, dwarfed by its forbidding Victorian architecture and its daunting past. Every brick, metal gate, fenced walkway and spyhole reveals another chapter in the history of penal thinking. Housing nearly 1,500 male prisoners, the jail seems to exemplify what Michel Foucault, author of the 1970s seminal book Discipline and Punish, described as a place that "cannot fail to produce delinquents".
Today, we have entered what the Government sees as a more humane chapter in penal history, aimed at helping prisoners fulfil themselves as useful members of society. This is emphasised by the Government green paper on reducing re-offending through skills and employment, published last December, and the broader curriculum approach of the Offender Learning and Skills Service (OLASS). OLASS schemes are running in three development regions in the north-east, north-west and south-west of England and are due to expand to rest of the country in August.
Learning is a key factor in reducing high rates of re-offending, but Wandsworth's in-house broadcaster, launched in 2004 by Cherie Booth QC and the then prisons minister Paul Goggins with funding from the Paul Hamlyn and Esmee Fairbairn Foundations, serves a more basic emotional need. "It helps people stop thinking about wanting to be on the outside," Michael explains. "That can be a big deal in here and Radio Wanno really helps."
The project, run by the prison in partnership with the educational media consultancy company Radio for Development (RFD) and London Metropolitan University, trains 15 students for a BTec national award in media (radio).
Its activities divide into the learning centre, the broadcasting unit, the CD production house, and the prison radio outreach project (Prop).
Staff from the university teach the core subjects and students learn key computer skills from the prison's education department. Participants tend to do well, often gaining distinctions and merits as well as simple passes, and unconditional university place offers are not uncommon.
"At first I was afraid of going back into the classroom and having to read to the others," Michael says. "But if you really want it, it's there and it's free. And it's a lot better than what prisoners used to get - working in the boiler house followed by lessons sitting on a carpet and a slap on the head if you dared to move. Even now, prisoners with no job and no study course may be locked up for 22 hours a day."
The students research, write and produce Radio Wanno's material, which includes news, sport, original drama, comedy and music programmes and a CD to help new prisoners understand prison life. Prison officers and inmates not on the course may also contribute and will often be interview subjects.
To keep the project anchored in reality and to benefit the lives of all prisoners, the station broadcasts mainly speech-based programmes for up to five hours each day. It aims to produce prisoner resettlement and induction CDs in Arabic, French, Spanish and Urdu, the main languages spoken by the prison's 400 foreign nationals. It also collaborates with The Landing, a magazine produced by prisoners.
Programmes often cover subjects that underpin other educational work in the prison, such as Toe by Toe reading mentoring scheme, and work by Fathers in Prison, highlighting the importance of families and parenthood. This links with work run by charities such as Action for Prisoners' Families on maintaining prisoners' family links, another key factor in reducing re-offending.
Rosie Parkyn is project manager for RFD and in charge of Radio Wanno. "A BTec in radio is a sexy, accessible way of introducing people to education," she says. "It originated with a similar scheme in Africa and we had to put in a lot of effort to get people to accept that it was going to work. Now that they know it works, everyone wants to be part of it.
"One of our biggest challenges is giving people the confidence to come back into the classroom and be under pressure to achieve something in four months. It is not like a course on the outside. These men may be dealing with detoxing and all sorts of other issues before they get to the classroom. Often there are disputes between prisoners in the group and how they handle these is an important part of the course. It is amazing to see how these guys develop over that time."
With an eye on the importance of maintaining student stability beyond the jail gates, Prop calls on a network of supporters, such as university lecturer mentors, to offer prisoners practical support dealing with everything from addiction and housing to employment and education opportunities.
Abigail Laing, Prop co-ordinator, says: "We didn't want people to come out with just a BTec and no idea what they would do next. Some people work on going into the media industry, but they all come out with transferable skills, such as confidence and communication abilities, that they can use in their personal and working lives. We want to take them through the basics of how to live to enable them to do what they want."
Radio Wanno works as a way of introducing education to people who are not used to learning or may be completely or partially illiterate. According to research cited in the green paper "30 per cent of offenders were regular truants from school (compared with 2 per cent of the general population) and 49 per cent of male prisoners were excluded from school (compared with less than 1 per cent of the general population). Over half of prisoners have no qualifications at all".
The green paper adds that training and support schemes to get offenders into "employment can make a significant difference to the employment rates of offenders. In six out of seven intervention programmes identified by the review, offenders in the treatment group were significantly more likely to be employed at least six months after completion than those in the comparison groups".
Wandsworth has shown its confidence in its broadcaster making a difference by taking the unusual step of allowing offenders from the vulnerable prisoner unit to take part in the scheme. As another measure of its success, it is the first course at the prison to be over-subscribed. But it is not always easy to ensure students will be able to attend the course to the end because the current prison population exceeds 76,000 people and prisoners are often moved from site to site as a way of managing numbers or as a result of remand requirements, a difficulty recognised when the National Offender Management Service was created in 2004 to help rationalise the serving of criminal sentences.
Despite these logistical problems, there are plenty of people benefiting from the project. Ben, 22, ending a three-year sentence in July, intends to follow up the BTec with sound production and lyric writing. "The course has a done a lot for me," he says. "It has taught me how to be more creative and manage my time. The course helps me find my own way."
Other students are interested in an array of career and life possibilities from radio to drama and music, and simply being a more confident communicator. The impact of education cannot be overestimated, says Silvanna Harvey, development officer at the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (Niace): "Education has a transformative power, it can improve an individual's personal circumstances and have a positive impact on wider society.
"As part of the education provision, we have to recognise that offenders are not a homogenous group and we need to provide a range of learning opportunities from innovative engagement programmes such as Radio Wanno, which are designed to stimulate an interest in learning, to vocational and literacy, language and numeracy provision and access to higher education.
"We are trying to develop wider skills, including improving own learning and performance, such as thinking skills and learning how to learn, working with others and negotiating solutions, and problem-solving. In addition, some offenders may need to develop their social awareness, confidence and health. Radio Wanno operates on all these levels. To engage adults in education you have to be innovative."
Peter Fewell, 49, knows more than most about the transformative power of the learning bug. "I was in Lewes prison for a two-and-a-half-year stretch ending in 2003 and I noticed my notes said, 'Fewell is illiterate'," he says. "I didn't know what it meant, but when I found out it niggled me. I had a bad education and was brought up in children's homes. I was told I was useless.
"One day, while I was in prison, I asked a teacher to help me to do joined up writing. She gave me sheets to copy, which I did in my cell every night.
After a few weeks my writing improved to such an extent that other inmates who were illiterate were asking me to help them.
"For the first time I was being treated like a human being. Suddenly I was known as Peter and not number 8118."
After continuing his studies, he went on to win a NiaceESF adult student of the year award and another prize from the Koestler Trust for a book of short stories, self-published and now used in prison classrooms. "I'm writing a book of my experience in prison and studying for a literature degree. My intention is to get back into prison on the right side of the law to teach, to share my passion. When you see men blossom with words, you think 'Wow, where did that come from?'" Radio Wanno lecturer Mary Mullen sees lots of students undergo this sort of transformation. "As men follow the course, initially there is bravado and after a few weeks they start to see more about their personality and beyond that, and start to relate to each other and me in a more human way. Classes enable the men to think in a deeper way. The more focused students end up supporting and helping the ones who are finding it harder."
Judging from past students of Radio Wanno, all the hard work is not in vain. Mark Williams, 36, was in Wandsworth from 2003 to 2004. "Radio Wanno gave me the chance to learn something and it gave me a chance to get out of my cell." He is now two years into a media degree course at Goldsmiths college in south-east London. "I've been working with one of the original co-ordinators on Radio Wanno in her production company, On Road Media, and I've had some programmes broadcast on the BBC."
Jason Grant, 25, was in Wandsworth between 2003 and 2004. "I'd never done anything like the Wanno course, even though I had a musical background and was in musical production before I went inside." He's in the first year of a media and communications degree at Goldsmiths. "I've had trouble with the law all my life and this has helped make a difference. The course made me see that I could do something else."
Such is the success of Wanno that a similar scheme is planned for Downview women's prison in Surrey, and will include television. "There will be a social enterprise company as well," says James Greenshields, director of RFD. "Any profits will be put back into the project to sustain it. We may then do the same at Wandsworth and there may even be links between the two schemes."
Good news stories are not lost on Michael. Among other successes, he has an English literature A-level and he proudly shows his folder filled with references. He has a place on the media and cultural studies course at Kingston university, London. "When you have an education, you don't try for quick, easy money because you know it will get you into trouble. Once you have the learning bug, you keep going with it when you leave prison," he says.
Daniel Lee is author of the children's novel "Finding Dad", published by Action for Prisoners Families and aimed at educating children in the difficulties of having a parent in prison. It is available from Amazon and APF: www.prisonersfamilies.org.uk