The Guardian, which has been supporting the development of the prisoners' newspaper Voice of the Ville for the past year, developed its link with Pentonville in 2006 when executives spent a year mentoring the senior management team at the prison. When the paper moved to its new headquarters in King's Cross in December 2008, it approached the governor to see how the two organisations could work together.
Before the Guardian's involvement, Voice of the Ville was laid out in black and white on two sides of A4. Now it runs to 16 pages, with full colour front and back pages and spot c...lour throughout. The improved product comes courtesy of IT equipment donated by GNM to furnish the institution's new media suite.
GNM also supports the prison's accredited BTEC programmes, including the National Union of Journalist course.
It is not just equipment that has found its way from the Guardian to Pentonville. Writers and support staff from across the paper make regular visits. They sit in at conferences, exchange ideas, suggest layouts and, in the words of Jenny Thomas, "give prisoners real life experience of desktop publishing on professional equipment".
Thomas, who lectures in English at the jail - and has been involved in the partnership from the start - speaks highly of the benefits brought by visits from the Guardian. She says that meeting staff from the paper has "widened the horizons" of the participating prisoners and "shown them there is something better". She says visitors from the paper "treat prisoners as equals and listen to them" in a practical interaction raises their self-esteem.
Inmate Carl says writing for the Voice rekindled his love of learning: "With the support of teachers and visits from Guardian staff, prisoners now have the facilities to undertake journalism courses and develop their writing. The continued help of the Guardian will help sustain this opportunity for prisoners to have a means of expression."
The partnership is far from being a one-way street. Pentonville is a "local" prison (taking prisoners from local courts) and its iconic buildings are highly visible to the many thousands who pass it everyday. But for all they know of life on the inside, it might as well be in Timbuktu.
This link has given Guardian staff a unique opportunity to get behind the high security walls and many say the visits have changed their perception of prisoners and prison life.
All but a tiny minority of the 85,000 plus prisoners in England and Wales, will be released back into society. How we treat them while they are incarcerated will have a huge bearing on how they treat us when they are released. By encouraging our prisoner partners to express themselves, this unique partnership between GNM and one of the oldest jails in the country is playing a small part in showing prisoners there may indeed be "something better".
Carl Oakley was working on Pentonville's Voice of the Ville and spent a day with Observer Magazine staff on his release. He writes about his experience below:
Voice of the Ville A short time ago I was dreaming about walking out of those big, foreboding metal gates that had denied me my freedom, I was enclosed by bricks and mortar. Now I am sitting in an open plan office, in a building full of natural light, surrounded by renowned journalists. I have encountered problems in my life, most of my own making. I suffered the consequences of the naivety of my youth. Fortunately I became a beneficiary of the community partnership between HMP Pentonville and the Guardian and the Observer and this has aided me in my determination to achieve something of substance with my life.
I was one of the many "resident" writers to previously contribute to the award-winning Voice of the Ville. A prison is a microcosm of the society in which it is set. Britain's inability to engage the disadvantaged and deprived in their local environment and provide real opportunities to empower oneself to overcome potential obstacles is clearly visible in the penal system. It is a sad indictment when most attempts to reduce re-offending and the causes of crime do not extend beyond tokenism. Though removed from society, all but the most serious criminals will eventually have to be resettled into the environment from which they were removed. It is logical that the public should have some form of access to the penal institutions to make sure that they are not the Butlins holiday camps reported about in some red-tops. Often the most vulnerable and neglected are conveniently caught up in the criminal justice system. There should be a balance between punishment and rehabilitation.
The sustainability scheme and such initiatives enable offenders to draw upon the numerous resources that could make a difference in the lives of offenders and the wider public. The Voice of the Ville helped me to rekindle my love of learning, debate and the exchange of ideas. With the support of teachers at HMP Pentonville and the workshops and visits from employees of the Guardian group I have taken strides forward and shall be commencing a degree course in the new academic year. Prisoners now have the facilities to undertake journalism courses and develop their writing. The credit crunch will inevitably have an impact upon the budget the Justice Ministry will have at its disposal and this in turn affect the variety of education courses available. The continued help of the Guardian will help sustain the significant efforts in launching and maintaining the chance for prisoners to have a means of expression.
Assured by Two Tomorrows
GNM sustainability report 2010
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