DUBAI: Dubai could have another first to its credit — possibly the world's only 24x7 TV channel run and produced exclusively by prisoners.
M. A., a Briton convicted for murder in 2008, is among the pioneers of this initiative at Al Aweer Central Jail: he has turned into a TV presenter.
The former construction project manager whose 25-year jail sentence was affirmed by the Dubai Cassation Court in February, is busy anchoring an in-house TV show for the channel these days.
The channel is the brainchild of Ali, a 46-year-old Emirati former TV director in jail since 2003 over unpaid loans. "I just teach them the basics… we work here as a team," said Ali who has taught script-writing and video editing to other inmates.
Besides information bulletins about who is going to court and when, the inmates have also produced three documentaries based on their life stories.
Li Ghafla Thaman (The Price of a Mistake), Al Yathoum (Nightmare) and Al Jaeza (The Gift) echo wrong decisions, regrets and the resolve to move on. A doctor inmate was given an hour-long episode on how to prevent infections inside the jail and maintain hygiene. Original shows are re-run a few times.
There's a documentary on the TV channel, too. Made by the inmates, it showcases how the channel has given them an outlet to vent their creativity and keep them gainfully preoccupied. Its voice-over is done by a convicted media executive.
The Inmate Channel is one of over 200 channels the 3,000 odd prisoners have access to during their TV time. "This channel makes an unbearable life inside more bearable," said M.A. in his first interview since his conviction. "The channel is informative and entertaining. It allows us to get across information about events within the facility."
Since the launch of the channel in May 2011, jail authorities have hailed the medium's effectiveness.
"It allows us to communicate better with inmates," said Col Adel Al Suwaidi, Director of Education and Training for Prisoners at the General Department of Correctional Institutions. "It also allows inmates to engage in something creative and discover their talents," he added.
XPRESS had an exclusive tour of the studio facilities inside Al Aweer prison this week where M.A. anchored a programme showing artworks made by his fellow prisoners.
Jail officials say they back the programme due to its unique effect on inmates.
Lt Col Abdul Hakim Ahmad Al Aji, Managing Director of Dubai Central Jail, said: "They see themselves in their own shows. When it was first suggested, we found it interesting so we endorsed it and got support from the very top. We believe it's the first such thing in the region, if not the world."
Cameras, video-editing computers, several terabytes of disk space and lighting equipment from the police's media section were given to inmates working under the supervision of warrant officer Hilal Al Beloushi, who is also involved in production.
Rushdie, a Filipino jailed for his inability to pay a Dh74,000 personal loan, said the channel has gained increasing popularity.
Initially it ran for only seven hours daily. Today, the team follows a plan with a 24-hour broadcast schedule plotted days ahead.
Debates and meetings
Inmates pitch in story lines which are discussed and debated in daily meetings.
The channel has helped unearth many hidden talents. Ahmad, an Emirati serving 15 years for drugs, is producing his own rap music at the jail's multimedia studio and delivered an impromptu performance for this reporter. "I am lost in my own world when I write or sing rap songs," said Ahmad, who hopes to release his own album some day.
A Filipino DJ helps produce computer-generated soundtracks. Taj, a 32-year-old Pakistani investment banker doing time for a finance-related offence, helps in the upkeep of computers. He also uses video-editing software for post-production work.
Abdullah, a 48-year-old Arab businessman and father of six jailed for unpaid loans, works as the in-house censor. "We cut undesirable material from movies," said Abdullah.
The channel is also used to announce calls for actors and translators, and the jobs are purely voluntary. The news team covers in-house educational programmes — auto repair, carpentry, arts, religious affairs and computers. Sporting events such as the recent Internee "World Cup" Championships graced by Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona are covered extensively.
Some shows are rendered in seven languages — Arabic, Hindi, English, Russian, Chinese, Swahili and Spanish.
One documentary may take up to a month of preparation (every item and prop has to be approved and inspected by jail authorities) and a few days to shoot.
However, with all the time in the world on their hands, it's not hard to find inmates ready to take up the challenge.