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Interview: Roma Hooper, prison-reform campaigner

08 December 2017

‘If we can’t grasp the value of forgiveness, people will live in perpetual anxiety’

My involvement in prisons came out of the blue. I’d worked for a children’s disability charity, Contact a Family; had three children; and, in my forties, I decided to do a degree in English and sociology at Kingston University. I went to help a neighbour, Mark Robinson, set up the first radio station at HMP Feltham.


It was the largest young-offender prison in Europe, just down the road from where we both lived, and five children had committed suicide there that year. It was a deeply isolating place in 1993.


In 2004, Lord Andrew Phillips, a wonderful, energetic guy, said: “You can’t just have a radio station here. You’ve got to expand it, and I’m going to help you to do it. Write to Greg Dyke and tell him what you need.” Andrew paid to set up a charity, the Prison Radio Station, in the Midlands, and the BBC seconded someone from the Jeremy Vine show to help. Once involved, he decided to stay on, and he’s now our chief executive.


The BBC funded him for a while, but then I had to take over and raise the funds to establish a sustainable organisation. It was a massive risk, but I just couldn’t let him down.


It’s been my dream that every prisoner in the country would have access to their own radio station. About ten years ago, as the Prison Radio Association was developing, the governor of Brixton Prison suggested we could broadcast via satellite through the televisions in each cell. Technology has come a long way even since then, and there’s a digital team now looking at how prisoners can use tablets for education, and whether key radio content can be broadcast through them.


It’s a 24/7 station for prisoners by prisoners, but we’re hoping to do podcasts, allow people outside to listen to certain appropriate programmes, and draw support from our new app, Straightline. We’d like to be available on the intranet so staff can listen, too. There’s a small hub being developed outside a women’s prison in Cheshire, to enable content to be put together with the help of those who have been inside, so that people can access cutting-edge information and support outside prison.


We’re in competition with East Enders and Coronation Street, and if prisoners have a radio, they can listen to outside broadcasting; but they love our breakfast show, and lunchtime and late evening; so we put the most important things for them on then. We know that 72 per cent of prisoners now listen on average for over 11 hours a week.


Many prisoners have difficulty in reading information leaflets, and we get many letters from them and their families telling us that prison radio has been a lifeline for them when they have been inside. We’re even more important now that prisoners are locked up for longer.


We can’t teach people to read over the radio, but we can inspire them to take part in literacy programmes. We run a book club supported by the Booker Prize Foundation and National Literacy Trust, programmes about health and mental wellbeing, plus our very popular family request show. We won a very prestigious award for our programme about restorative justice, made with a wonderful couple whose son was murdered, and who found peace through forgiveness.


We need to be sensitive. We can’t force education down people’s throats; but we can open up their minds. And share information: prisoners are often the last to hear what’s going on in prisons, or how to get support when they leave.


We’re looking to see if we can develop this on an international level, because there’s a lot of interest from prisons worldwide.


We don’t have a godslot, because we have to be impartial, but there’s always an opportunity to share one’s views; and we’ve had interviews with people such as the Archbishop of Canterbury.


Christmas is a difficult time inside. We used to do a lot at Feltham, wheeling round party bags and Christmas cards, but I don’t think people do that now. Prisoners are locked up for longer, to give the staff time off with their families. They’ll get a Christmas dinner on their lap, locked in their cell, watching television. But we do run special programmes on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.


I’ve been involved in many initiatives helping prisoners, such as Women’s Breakout, Spark Inside, Make Justice Work, and Comedy School. Now I’m looking to train to be a restorative-justice facilitator. Restorative justice is complex, and some people find it difficult to see its value; but if we can’t grasp the value of forgiveness, people will live in perpetual anxiety. Bringing victims and perpetrators together can have a longstanding healing impact.


Prisons are facing huge challenges at the moment because of massive cuts in prison budgets and the privatisation of probation services. The reluctance to apply the evidence that most prison sentences don’t work stems from not having the right narrative to communicate to the media and public. As a country, we’re fixated on punishment, and despite clear evidence about the damage prisons and punishment can do, we continue to think it is the answer.


But prisons as a sector are at fault, too, because we use the wrong language and we inadvertently alienate the very people we need to bring on board. We’ve got to talk about solutions and human values: these people who are part of our community and the solution. I’m passionate about the waste of human potential when we send people with mental-health, drugs, and alcohol issues to prison for short sentences.


The rise in corruption and drug abuse in prisons comes from there not being enough staff to monitor drugs coming in, not enough for prisoners to do, and the high level of mental-health, drug, and alcohol problems. There’s also been an increase in gang activity and violence inside. Equally, staff need more support in this highly volatile environment.


The Church could do more. Prison chaplaincy departments are really important and are very supportive inside and out, but we’re not getting it across to wider congregations. The Church has a shared responsibility with the rest of society to focus on redemption, not punishment. Richard Harries (who married us) and many others do a great deal — but we need more.


There’s no way I could have done any of this on my own. Mark Robinson was the very first person to get me into prisons — and Andrew Phillips, David Ramsbotham, Simon Buckby, my family, and many others have shown huge faith and trust in everything I’ve done and tried to do: prison staff, governors, funders, policy-makers, family, friends, prisoners, practitioners — just to name a few.


My father and mother were in the army and, when I appeared a little early, they married. . . My sister and brother and I are extremely close. We grew up as an army family in Tidworth, but eventually, when I was nine, my father left the army and my mother moved into a cottage in Eversley, Hampshire. My father moved out, but tragically committed suicide when I was 11. We were very fortunate to be granted bursaries, and we were sent away to school so that my mother could work.


Our mother supported us amazingly, but the situation took its toll on her. I did secretarial work after school, was married by the age of 20, and separated by the age of 24. But I met Bruce, who’d come from Australia, and we married in 1979. It was then that I began my career in the voluntary sector. We’ve had an amazing life together, and had three lovely children and four delightful granddaughters.


When I’m not working, I love photography, walking, reading, and watching mindless TV, and spending time with my family. I’m happy when all’s at peace with them. Birdsongs are my favourite sound. Happiness is very fleeting; so I hold on to it when I can.


I pray most for a world where forgiveness and kindness are not seen as weakness but as strength.

My children give me hope, and my belief that there are more good people than bad people, and that goodness will prevail.


If I could have anyone as a companion for a few hours locked in a church, I’d choose to be with my father.


Roma Hooper was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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