Broadcasting to death row

Siobhann Tighe Siobhann Tighe, (pictured), recently returned from two months on the road, exploring prison radio programmes heard on the "outside"

A young woman, Olivia, is at her local radio station in Houston, Texas. She's giving a shout-out to her friend. Her way of saying: "Hi! How Are You? Thinking About You!" She's absolutely certain that he'll be tuned-in. "He always listens. He likes it."

Nothing remarkable about all that, you might think, except that Olivia's friend is on death row.

"He's due to be executed next week. He got the death penalty for murdering a police officer," says Olivia, surprisingly upbeat. I sense she believes it won't happen. "I have a lot of prayers going on."

He was executed by lethal injection, as planned.

I bumped into Olivia at The Prison Show, a live radio programme which goes out every Friday night. The first hour is devoted to topical custodial issues and the second is for mothers, fathers, children, friends and supporters to call in and connect with their loved ones behind bars, including those at The Polunsky Unit, the official name for death row.

The show is presented and produced by ex-offenders. They're like The Dukes Of Hazzard with their Stetsons and white beards. There's a bullet hole in the studio door and the station's been bombed off the air by the Ku Klux Klan. Twice.

Travel, learn and make changes

I was in Houston as part of a two-month road-trip looking at prison radio programmes which are on the public airwaves. I also went to Washington DC, Oregon and Sweden exploring the editorial risks and possible social benefits of such broadcasting.

I was supported by a prestigious award called a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust bursary. This year, 150 of them were given out: 50 more than normal, to mark its 50th anniversary. The aim is to travel, find out new things about your area of interest and then use what you've learnt to make some positive changes back home. The trust wants you to think big and influence decision-makers.

But why prison radio programmes?

Yes, I'm a Radio Four reporter and producer but for the last 16 months I've been on secondment as Head of Prison Radio - a BBC arrangement with the National Offender Management Service, which is an agency of the Ministry of Justice. My stint has now come to an end and I've passed the baton to another BBC person.

National Prison Radio is a unique, award-winning, national radio station, made by prisoners, for prisoners. Crucially, it cannot be heard on the outside. First and foremost, this is to protect victims and prevent causing further offence and hurt.

As Head of Prison Radio, I went into prisons weekly and having this unique insight into a world most of us are completely ignorant about I started to wonder whether a professionally-produced, half-hour radio strand, broadcast on the public airwaves and including the voice of offenders and ex-offenders, would have some national value. Could it improve our understanding of this invisible world? Could it add to the debate about crime and punishment? Could it help tackle recidivism?

'I'm not naive'

Going into prisons I was constantly amazed.

Believe it or not, I witnessed a lot of positive initiatives and I spoke to many intelligent prisoners with something interesting to say, but I'm not naive. I know that some prisoners are dangerous, violent and have caused terrible damage but it's much more complicated than that.

Many more are there because of poor choices. Many have been abused themselves, come from poverty, are virtually illiterate, have addictions or mental health problems.

These are not excuses, but if we think of ourselves as mature and engaged citizens surely we're obliged to understand the context, and to do that properly we need accurate, trusted, impartial and balanced information delivered without hysterics.

When I was on my travels, The Pope visited a jail in the States. During an interview on American television the British religious pundit, Paul Vallely, described prisoners as "a constituency in the modern world that is most neglected by us". Yet it's a group which has a huge impact on us, both financially and psychologically. Don't we owe it to ourselves to understand prison life better?

Dip into my blog and if you have time, drop me a line. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Features

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.