Teaching Prisoners

In Preparation

Inside one of Her Majesty's Prisons
A prison with about 700 inmates
we recorded in a prison chapel to escape too much extraneous noise
A prisoner studying
I also produced a radio soap opera at Gartree Prison in Leicestershire
Thomas de Quincey

Teaching English to Prisoners and Other Vulnerable Groups

With adaptation and imagination the contents of this course can also be applied to teaching other vulnerable groups such as refugees, the homeless and those suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)

This final course can be about using all the skills you have acquired through previous courses to help prisoners – and others – have fun, gain self confidence and acquire English. You may not have access to working in prisons yourself, but perhaps you can help those who do.

Radio Drama can tick many boxes for prisoners. It can provide them with the skills of writing, acting, technical expertise, an outlet for their musical ability and team-work. It can give them joy, confidence and a sense of purpose. Also through writing and performing plays and documentaries that may also involve victims, families and staff, it may encourage them to use their imagination to identify with another point of view; helping them in turn to become contributing members of society.

One of the advantages of radio as opposed to film is that it can be a cost effective way for a community to participate in the creative process of educating, informing and entertaining; and to produce a finished result in a short time.

I have been fortunate in working with Mary Stephenson, who was Writer in Residence at Her Majesty’s Prison, Channings Wood, Newton Abbott. She wrote a play from life about a bare-knuckle boxer, who had been sentenced for murder and whose girl friend had given birth just after his imprisonment. His girlfriend then married another man, but the growing relationship of the prisoner with his son was very moving. The prisoner played himself and Nicole Tongue, a student actress, cleared along with myself to enter the prison, played his son. (Yes, on radio actresses can often play young boys.) Staff and other inmates were effective in playing themselves. The result was broadcast on the prison radio.

We also worked with the prison’s Drugs Therapeutic Community to put together three twenty minutes radio features with the overall title of A Journey through Drugs. These were compiled from interviews with the prisoners and their families, friends and staff, also with their poems, music and songs composed and performed and improvised dramas. Part one was The First Fix, part two The Depths and part three Rehabilitation.

This won the radio category of the Arthur Koestler award for creative work in prisons. One of the judges wrote:

“This was outstanding in every way. I was moved, appalled and saddened by the tragedies I heard. You educated and informed me and I can only say I feel encouraged that you are working together to start new lives. My admiration is boundless and I cannot congratulate you enough.”

After the opening credits The First Fix started:


YOUNG DRUG USER: I take drugs for fun. I don’t take drugs to become completely and utterly disassociated from reality. Do you know what I mean? I’m in control of it – definitely.
INMATE 1: At times I knew I had a problem, but because it wasn’t affecting me really, I didn’t realise I was a Junkie, like people see a junkie with needles hanging out of their arms and whatever. It was summat I thought I could handle, but I realised it was stopping me progress in life basically.


STUDENT ACTRESS: (Reading from Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-eater) Oh just, subtle and all conquering opium that to the hearts of rich and poor alike bringest an assuaging balm. Eloquent opium! Thou buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imageries of the brain, cities and temples beyond the splendours of Babylon and from the anarchy of dreaming sleep call’st into sunny light the faces of long buried beauties. Thou hast the keys of paradise.


INMATE 2: Next time I took, it in was in Bombay, in India. I met this French prostitute and her fellow who was selling heroin at two pound a gram. I thought give us a go of that like.
Two students from Dartington Arts School then explained how they draw on the life experiences of prisoners to help them create improvised dramas, which I then directed for radio. Thus we introduced a 90 second playlet about becoming a drug addict. Then we interwove further interviews (in which the interviewer was always edited out), poems, songs and more drama to tell the story of how many drug addicts become addicted.

With these programmes recorded at Channings Wood Prison we had to undergo stringent security procedures and work within strictly circumscribed hours. Also as we were working ‘on location’ we had to be very patient in working round interruptions. We usually used the prison chapel for recording as it was carpeted and less echoey than most of the assembly rooms, corridors or cells. Occasionally we recorded outside in the prison precincts. After recording we edited in the prison studio with prisoners, who were learning to use the prison radio’s audio editing software. Paradoxically I discovered that making radio programmes in prison imbued me with a wonderful sense of freedom. I think it was because the exercise released the prisoners’ imaginations. It could take the prisoners anywhere and I shared their journey with them.

Prison Radio Soap Opera 1: Rye Hill Prison

Bristol Old Vic Students
Gerry Ryan was one of my most gifted students when I was teaching Creative Studies at Bath Spa University. She writes:

“Radio drama was a whole new area for me and I immediately fell in love with the power and possibility of the form. Not least from Shaun’s passion and wonderful teaching. After graduating someone said they’d found the ideal job for me which was a writer in residence in prisons. In preparing for my interview, I came across Mary Stephenson and read about her work using radio in prisons and knew this was exactly what I wanted to do.

“In 2005 I started as the writer in residence at HMP Rye Hill and got involved in their fledgling radio station and got back in touch with Shaun and we got together and hatched a plan to produce the first ever prison radio soap opera.

“I got funding from the Arts Council and we began work in 2006. Prisoners got involved in everything from writing to performing to post-production and some even had a go at directing. We got staff involved in performing and invited students from the Bristol Old Vic, (where Shaun was producing Radio Shakespeare), to take on female roles which added a fantastic link to the outside world as well as learning on both sides of the wall. Thanks to the power of radio (and some great editing work) we were also able to include vulnerable prisoners, normally segregated from the mainstream population. As well as the freedom it gave prisoners from their surroundings, it gave them a powerful opportunity to learn to collaborate in a positive way as a team towards a common cause, to overcome all sorts of barriers and to work as equals with staff and outside visitors. It was truly a life-changing experience for many of the participants.”

Gerry continued: “I also got some funding to run a project joining up community radio with the local Young Offenders’ Institution to produce a series of radio programmes to share the lives and creative talents of the young men held behind the walls with the locals.

“In 2008, I took on another writing residency in a high security prison where access to radio as a platform was nigh on impossible. However, I was allowed to purchase a voice recorder for use with prisoners and we managed to get some editing software and the ability to transfer to CD which created a good second option for producing audio drama. And the basic simplicity of what was needed shows another reason why audio is such a great medium to work with in prisons. We spent hours creating drama and documentaries; everything from using improvised drama to explore storylines drawn from participants’ lives to telling the story of the drug rehabilitation unit, incorporating poetry, music, and rap. One of the most moving uses of audio was for dads in prison to create and record a song or poem or story for their children which we would record onto CD and send out along with a picture book designed by the dads and produced by me using a print on demand service online.”

Prison Radio Soap Opera 2: Channings Wood Prison

Building on the success of the Drugs Therapeutic Community feature we were also asked to produce a radio soap opera with the prisoners and staff of Channings Wood. We also included episodes about the challenges and problems of prisoners’ families. We recorded some episodes outside the prison with staff and friends as actors. Thus we gave the soap a working title of Inside Out.

  The Soap was about the Drugs Therapeutic Unit but it was recorded with prisoners in the main prison, as well as some scenes with prisoners in the separated VPU (Vulnerable Prisoner’s Unit). The VPU is for prisoners, such as child abusers who might be attacked by other prisoners. One of our main intentions was to awaken prisoners to the damage they had caused to others and to give them the skills and confidence not to offend again.


JIM: You, all right?
BERT: Whatever.
JIM: How was your journey down here?
BERT: Rubbish mate, staying in all the jails and that. Bang out of order mate.
JIM: Yeah.
BERT: All I want to do is get some kip. I can’t even get my property. They say I’ll have to wait until tomorrow.
JIM: I know what you mean.
BERT: I’ve got to leave it in reception over night. I’ve done that for the past two days, coming down here. Now I’ve got to leave it over again for three days. I can’t even brush my teeth. I had to use prison issue yesterday. I don’t like that.
JIM: That’s the prison system for you. You’ve come to the drugs therapeutic community . To do something for your life, but you’re still in prison. We’ve got to abide by their rules at the end of the day.
BERT: Look mate. I just can’t get my head around it.
JIM: What I want to talk to you about is the induction. It’s a five or six weeks period. You’re going to be working on issues, you don’t even know you have yet.
BERT: Right.
JIM: What I’ve got here is a little induction book for yer.
BERT: Sweet mate.
JIM: If you’ve got any thoughts … feelings write ’em down.
BERT: For what? Put my feelings on paper.
JIM: Yes, someone brings feelings out and you write em down. If you don’t understand summat, then we’ll read ’em out …. in the group.
BERT: You’re ‘aving a laugh, aren’t yer? And everyone hears it?
JIM: That’s what you’re here for. If there’s summat you can’t put down, yeah? Because you feel embarrassed to talk about it in a room full of lads …
BERT: I don’t like that.
JIM: You got a structure and me; first port of call. Come and see me. I’m in Derby 2.
BERT: Yeah. Right.
JIM: It’s going to be hard to get your head around this place, but I say is, for the life you’ve had out there and all the pain we’ve caused other people, mainly our families…


BERT: What’s that there?
JIM: What them in dresses?
BERT: What’s he doing?
JIM: It’s not that, innit? You know ….
BERT: How’s he get a wig and a dress in prison? What’s that all about, man?
JIM: It’s a confidence building thing.. Some people who haven’t got confidence to go out and perform in the morning meeting…
BERT: Get on him. He’s dancing in a mini skirt. What’s that? He’s got a crop top on as well. How’s he get high heeled shoes in jail ?
JIM: Do you not wear them clothes?
BERT: What do you take me for, some kind of tranny? What’s that all about? We’re criminals in jail, man. You don’t bounce around in dresses.
JIM: That can prevent you from going there and taking drugs and dying somewhere in a corner.
BERT: What? Dancing in a dress will stop me from selling drugs.
JIM: Yeah.
BERT: Look at him. He loves it. Red dress, high heels and a wig. He’s got summat down his top to make fake … er … think top half things.


BERT: What’s that all about man?


BERT: I can’t take this . I’m leaving.
JIM: Go on you don’t want to be a know all, like my old mate, Billy Braggard.
BERT: Why who’s Billy Braggard? Is he one of those trannies over there?
JIM: Billy only dresses in tattoos. I knew him in Exeter. You don’t want to be a career criminal like him. He’s over on the main now.
Two scenes later for the first time Bert shares his problems with the Drugs Therapeutic Community.
CRAIG: Good afternoon community my name’s Craig.
EVERY BODY SHOUTS: Good afternoon Craig.
CRAIG: Please welcome Bert Jackson to the community.


BERT: Good afternoon community my name’s Bert.
ALL SHOUT: Good afternoon Bert.
BERT: Er… Thanks for that, lads, for making me feel welcome. Er … I’m a bit nervous, so bare with me, please, lads. Well, I’ve come here, cos I’ve got a thirteen year old daughter. She’s called Katie, you know. And I love her to bits, you know. Er .. I just want to sort out my life. Be a good Dad, and stop letting her down, and meself down. And just basically be there for her and live a drugs free life. And that’s it, lads.


CRAIG: Ok, Norman’s spot. Cooper.
COOPER: Afternoon community, my name’s Cooper.
EVERYBODY: Afternoon. Cooper?
COOPER: Yeah a bit. It’s a bit early innit, when you first land here, mate. But if you want to start sorting yourself out, this is the right place to come, mate. You’ve got a lot of support, you’ve seen by the cheer you got off the community. We’re behind you all a hundred percent, mate. You know, if you’re ever stuck this is what it’s about mate.. We all speak together. Good luck, mate. All right?


In one scene a prisoner had climbed up on the roof to protest against the prison authorities. The prisoner actor did not actually climb on the roof, but shouted from an upper window to those below in a prison yard, as this gave the same distance and acoustic. However many other prisoners watching were highly entertained, and provided some good background jeering and cheering for the recording.

Other Possibilities

Using what you have learnt from this website, think of how many people you might help: and at the same time teach others English, while improving your own. What about helping those with PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder), refugees, the homeless or those suffering from illness or bereavement, by getting them to tell their stories and making a programme with you?

Storytelling can be healing.

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