Unchained: The Making of My BBC Radio 4 Documentary

Brenda Birungi aka Lady Unchained is a Poet and Founder of Unchained Poetry, a platform for artists with experience of the criminal justice system and is a member of a Spokesperson Network being piloted by sounddelivery. In this guest blog she shares her journey from prison to presenting her first documentary for BBC Radio 4.

I never thought I could ever end up in prison, so to even imagine I would one day be making my own documentary about prison just seems like a movie I would enjoy watching. The problem is movies are not real, maybe that’s why I am that weird person who watches random films on YouTube, as long as they are based on true stories.

My broadcasting journey started with an email I sent to the Prison Radio Association, who I now know as my National Prison Radio family.  I had emailed a few organisations in my search to find other creative people with lived experience of the criminal justice system. NPR were the only ones I got a response from.  They invited me to Broadcasting House as a guest on one of their shows Outside In where I was interviewed by two hosts who both had lived experience. Shout out to Hilary Ineomo-Marcus and Clinton Nyame for giving me the best ever welcome into broadcasting and showing me that I could one day do what they were doing. The show was all about mentorship and positive role models, we spoke about who inspired us, and all along I was being inspired by the two strong black men interviewing me like they were born doing this.

In that moment I truly started believing my mission “There is life after prison” and as ex-offenders we could achieve anything we put our mind to, with the right support anything was possible. I went on to host a show on NPR’s Straightline alongside my then interviewer turned co-host Hilary, with our producer, the amazing Arthur Hagues. We recorded all our Straightline shows in the shack studio outside HMP Brixton, I can honestly say all my broadcasting training and skills were developed in that studio, we had some great times. Filming top tip videos with Arthur in the shack giving advice on everything from managing your license conditions, setting up a bank account and budgeting after prison was just so much fun, and to get the chance to interview my own mother about how my prison sentence affected her and the rest of the family was something I doubt I would have ever got to do without my NPR family.

I wasn’t shocked when Andrew and Arthur first mentioned me recording at Women’s Centres for NPR. They would always try to bring any opportunities they had my way, I guess I learnt a long time ago I had to put myself in the position of ever having a chance to apply for such opportunities.

Jess Lawson the producer and I visited Women’s Centres around the UK, travelling from London to Brighton, Manchester and Gloucester.  It was truly an incredible experience interviewing staff and the women who access the services in those centres. I recall sharing a meal with the ladies and just talking without the mic, everyone seemed to be really excited that one of the women had eaten all her food. I spoke to that woman and she said every time she had got into trouble she had been drinking, and not eating anything. She realised that when she didn’t eat, the alcohol would affect her in different ways. When I was depressed I would stop eating too, but would always have alcohol. I shared my personal experience with her so she knew I wasn’t there to judge her, I had my own experience identifying those triggers, that’s a huge part of rebuilding your life after prison.

About a year later I got a call from Andrew saying we had been commissioned to make a documentary for BBC Radio4, that’s when I was shocked. At one point I’m sure I had to look at my phone just to check that I was really having this conversation, not dreaming.

Making a documentary about women in prison meant so much to me, after all I was once a woman in prison. It was a perfect match, but nothing could have prepared me for the emotions that would come to the surface in order for this documentary to be produced. And as each woman started to share their story with me  it was like I lived each story mentally and emotionally, like we were one person telling our story over and over again. I saw myself in each of the women I spoke to, to create Unchained, but most importantly I saw just how strong each woman truly was.

Recording the final programme in the studio, and hearing my words come to life was a bit scary. I used to believe only bad things happen to me, that I didn’t deserve good things, I am a criminal after all, so they say. But everything happens for a reason, I believe that now more than ever, how else would I have gone from ex-offender to broadcaster?

I hear people say hard work, but hard work means nothing if you don’t believe in yourself. I left the studio the same way I left prison, confused and not truly understanding who I was or what I would do next. I am working to defend those who thought they had lost the battle because they are doing time. The possibilities are endless, and I know who I am.

Who am I? I am Lady Unchained

I hope that this documentary allows people to truly start to see those of us who have been through the prison system  as humans. Many of us found ourselves in prison after a first offence, all of the women had experienced some form of violence or abuse, addiction and serious mental health issues were prevalent. The truth is we are all one step away from a prison sentence, I used to judge people with convictions too. Prison humbled me, you don’t have to go to jail to learn what I learnt there, but you have to be willing to listen. I want people to start seeing women in the justice system for who they really are, mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and grandmothers. In order for us to grow and truly rebuild after prison we need society to see that we are more than our crimes, we are Unchained.

The choice is yours, I choose to be Unchained.

About the Author: Brenda Birungi also known as Lady Unchained is a Poet and Founder of Unchained Poetry, a platform for artists with experience of the criminal justice system and is a member of a Spokesperson Network being piloted by sounddelivery.  @UnchainedP

Unchained BBC Radio 4 Thursday 23rd April 11.30am: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000hghf
Do join in the conversation using the hashtag #UnchainedDoc

Website details to follow.

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