Voice of the ville: prison newspaper

In 2012, PET alumni, Erwin James launched our film More than Just a prisoner with a powerful speech in which he said: “I’m more than just a prisoner, I’m a Guardian journalist!” PET funded Erwin to study a journalism course whilst in prison and he went on to become a columnist for the newspaper where he still works. PET continues to support students who want to study journalism or writing courses. We have funded many learners based at HMP Pentonville, where they can put their newly acquired skills into practice at the prison's Voice of the Ville newspaper before gaining work experience at the Guardian.

Voice of the Ville gets intensive support

In a special event for Volunteering Week 2013 (1-7 June), a group of prisoners at HMP Pentonville received intensive training in journalism during workshops led by five writers from the Guardian News & Media (GNM).

The volunteers covered a range of different topics from global poverty to UK politics, law and social justice and taught a group of prisoners practical skills in interviewing techniques, grammar and reporting breaking news.

Pentonville has received support from the Guardian and Observer’s voluntary community programme for the past four years helping its prisoners produce a professional newsletter, the award-winning Voice of the Ville. Through doing so, prisoners on the newsletter class can learn valuable vocational skills and gain qualifications in journalism through NOCN accredited courses.

PET asked the news group to tell us more about the history of the scheme and the positive benefits and opportunities for learning for all involved.

Fiona McKellar, the Guardian Sustainability Co-ordinator, writes:

“The relationship with Pentonville grew from a Business in the Community initiative in 2004. This was designed to support the senior management teams at London's prisons with mentoring and coaching. Each prison was paired with a company and the Guardian and Observer were introduced to Pentonville, given their proximity.

The project could have ended up being short-lived but there was a particular interest from the Guardian’s editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger to create a more enduring relationship. This also fitted in with the community strategy of the company, which is to create long-term relationships rather than flitting from one project to the next.

From the very start of the Guardian’s involvement with the local community, education has been critical, especially given that this sector has always been a core part of our editorial coverage. Like all effective community projects, the benefits flow both ways.

The relationship with the prison developed to include donating IT equipment for the use of the newsletter class but this quickly became a more ambitious project, teaming up groups of editorial staff with prisoners.

Prisoners are supported in developing their communication skills and the classes help build self-esteem and confidence.

After one class the teacher fed back to the editorial volunteer that, "all of the men present were very proud of what they'd achieved under your guidance,” About the project in general she went on to comment on how it had, "widened their horizons" and "shown them there is something better to aim for in life."

The volunteers also find the sessions rewarding. Volunteers at the prison usually return after their first session speaking of how much they enjoy their time at the prison and of their determination to maintain the programme, despite their busy work lives. Our own internal research has shown that volunteering projects also help staff to learn new skills, such as building effective relationships.

After taking part, one volunteer wrote: “The prison newsletter is a fantastic project, some of the people working on it have real talent and it is very rewarding helping them to see that. But I often leave with the vague suspicion that I get more out of it than the men do!"

The link has also given Guardian staff a unique opportunity to go behind the high security walls of a prison and many say the visits have changed their perception of prisoners and prison life.

The practicalities of the project include volunteers supporting prisoners with everything from grammar and interviewing techniques to page layout and style.

As a result of the partnership together with the dedication of the teaching staff and hard work of the prisoners, the newsletter has transformed from a double-sided sheet of A4 printed in black and white to a full colour edition with its own coherent style and clearly laid out pages.

The partnership has also developed outside of the prison walls with two of the former editors of Voice of the Ville coming to the Guardian and Observer for work experience after their release. Others have gone on to do journalism courses outside of prison, but even those that don't choose this path gain skills and experience from the classes.”