Television frequently gets blamed for society’s ills - but at HMP Downview it may actually be helping to cure them.
The women’s prison at Belmont in Sutton runs a unique course in TV production which is turning around lives.  The Media House project has already won many awards and some high profile admirers, including film director Mike Leigh and Princess Anne.
The Princess Royal was so impressed she recently paid a visit to Downview after presenting Senior Project Manager Maria Esposito with a prestigious Butler Trust award for her work there.
“The original aim was to teach media skills and put in a current form of communication rather than rely on posters and leaflets to pass important information to the women,” said Maria.
“The levels of literacy in prison can be so low, it doesn’t matter if you put a 1,000 posters on a wing, if they can’t read it’s not going to make any difference. 
“So if you can tell them the information through something they already do - like watching television - and it’s made by a fellow offender, that’s going to have a much bigger impact.”
Taught by Maria, a hugely experienced TV producer, and award winning directors Sian Williams and Fiona Ring, the BTEC in Creative Media Production course has produced nearly 150 graduates, many with distinctions, since launching in 2006.
“At first it felt like being back in school and I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it,” said Sally,* 23. “Then some of my friends said to stick with it and by the second week it got better and I completed it and I am proud I did.  It’s a really good course and it’s given me much more confidence.”
The women’s films have also won several prestigious Koestler Trust film awards, which in the past have been judged by director Mike Leigh, and last year by Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman. Mike Leigh’s comments are proudly displayed in the reception of The Media House learning centre in the prison grounds.
The Media House comprises teaching rooms, a small studio and edits suites.  Aside from the BTEC course, the facility runs Time TV, an in-house community TV station that broadcasts programmes and infomercials on subjects such as health and welfare, made by the women.
Run by Maria’s employer, training provider Media for Development, and Carshalton College, the Downview BTEC courses - equivalent to A levels - have a 100 per cent pass rate. Twelve women train over an intensive 20-week period. There are no restrictions on age or lack of entry qualifications.  But almost all of them show visible signs of improved focus and better behaviour as a result of being involved.
“The success of the women upon release offers not only positive results and statistics for the prison but is incredibly inspiring for the current students as well as the wider prison population,” said Julie Evans, Downview’s Head of Reducing Reoffending.
“They can see the connection from education to employment and the ability to change their future.
“The prison is very proud to have this project bringing success and positive publicity to offender management.”
The aim is not to merely to train the women, many of whom have few or no educational qualifications, to work in the competitive media industry - although several have, including one who is now a video editor at the BBC. 
The main purpose is to give them transferrable employability skills of self-discipline, communication, research, preparation and media analysis, which are vital if the women are to get any job when they leave. Although many have succeeded in employment a huge number use their BTEC qualification to go on to university after prison.
But the course is not just about education, it also offers a unique rehabilitation exercise. It gives the women the chance to re-examine their lives. They start the course making a ‘digital story’ which is often about how they came to be in prison.  This is the start of a journey which culminates in them making a five minute documentary graduation film. 
Research has shown that a high percentage of women in prison have suffered abuse, been in care or had little education - many also have mental health issues - and this is frequently reflected in their films.
“There are many very broken and damaged people in the prison system and it isn’t our place to judge them... even though to have come here they have generally been involved in significant crime” said Maria.
“We study documentary because it challenges issues of truth and ethics. We have a lot of clients here who have very questionable relationships with the truth.  Just through teaching media and the way we’ve structured it, they start to look at themselves differently.”
Thirty-seven-year-old Downview graduate Rose* often wished she could rub out some of the dark experiences of her past. So she used an eraser as a metaphor within her digital story film.
“I wish I could erase what actually happened to me and I wanted to build a story around that,” said Rose.
“It can be difficult if, like me, there are certain issues in your life from which you feel emotionally disconnected. It was my way of coping.  The process of making the film was quite challenging and yes it was quite emotional at times.  But it really helps you as an individual.”
The women’s films are screened at their graduation and are extremely moving for their family and friends who come along.  With the women’s permission, they can also be shown on the in-prison Time TV network and there are moves to distribute them to other women’s prisons.
Maria would love to hear from any employers who might be interested in offering three months of work experience to the women when they reach the resettlement stage before they are released.  She would also like to hear from any charities or local organisations who would like a low cost film made or edited by the women.  This provides both real work and much needed funding to sustain the Media House. She would also like to make contact with any media companies in the area. For more information contact
*Names changed