Posing for a picture covered in caolin at the end of a video shoot
Posing for a picture covered in caolin at the end of a video shoot. Photo by Dione Roach.

Inside Jail Time Records, a Music Label Started in a Notorious Prison

From a studio in a Cameroon jail, a revolutionary record label gives inmates a voice, with ambitions to expand across Africa.

Now that he’s out of prison, 31-year-old Magloire Noumedem earns cash on the streets of Douala, Cameroon’s largest city, in any way he can. Speaking over a shaky Zoom connection, he’s warm and broad-smiled as he explains through a translator: He has a cleaning gig, he shuttles passengers at a taxi rank, and he works as an atalaku DJ, performing for rich clients who throw money at the stage in return for him shouting out their names and hyping up the crowd. But these are just things he does to get by. His main focus is his own music, a combination of drill and trap, that he records under the name Kengol DJ.

The corridor leading from the women's quarter of prison to the juvenile quarter.

The corridor leading from the women's quarter of prison to the juvenile quarter. Photo by Dione Roach.

Noumedem got into music in the mid-2010s, largely inspired by the late Ivorian coupè decalè superstar DJ Arafat, but had given up before going to jail. He was arrested on December 23, 2019, for “vagabonding”—smoking weed and having no ID card—and spent seven months inside New Bell Prison, often regarded as Cameroon’s toughest. “It was a very bad experience for me,” he says. “The time I spent there wasn’t appropriate for the crime and my criminal record. I’m a gentle person. But luckily, I found the studio in there.” 

That studio is run by Jail Time Records, a non-profit label founded in 2018. He started recording there and landed one of the 24 tracks featured on the label’s album Jail Time Vol.1, a collection of trap, drill, afro-house tunes produced within New Bell. It’s a powerful, inherently political compilation that unifies diverse styles and lyrical themes under one overarching message: hope. It’s also just really good.

Above, see the video for Lala Badman’s “Omo Alaja,” Jail Time’s latest single, which premieres today on VICE. Lala is a Nigerian artist who’s been in New Bell Prison since November 2022, waiting to be judged for a weed charge; the clip was shot during a concert in prison and inside the prison kitchen, directed with hallucinatory effect by Jail Time’s cofounder, Dione Roach.


Roach, 33, is an Italian artist who had been working a few years ago with an NGO to hold events inside New Bell. During one of her dance classes, a crew of rappers took the mic, and soon they were rehearsing every day. “The prison is really overpopulated, she says, “so spaces are used in different ways, and we ended up rehearsing [in a space] on Death Row.” When the rap crew decided that they wanted to release a CD, Roach approached the prison and proposed that they build a studio. They agreed, but they needed someone to run it. Vidou H was just the man for the job.

Co-founder Steve “Vidou H” Happi, now 34, was a prisoner in New Bell at the time. He had been falsely accused (and has since been acquitted) of murdering his father, who had died of a heart attack during a medical operation. And he was harboring a wealth of experience from his life as a sound engineer and producer on the outside. Quickly, he became the studio’s de facto beatmaker and producer. “We have a MIDI keyboard, two microphones, speakers, and the most important part—the brain,” he says. “Dione just gave me the key, and we’ve made more than 1000 songs now. At first, it was mostly about rap, but now we open the door to everyone.”

Stone Larabik in the death sentence quarter during a moment of communal prayer

Stone Larabik in the death sentence quarter during a moment of communal prayer. Photo by Dione Roach.

Happi has been free since December 2019, but he still returns to the prison to record, estimating that around 300 artists have passed through the studio, many of whom had never made music before. He and Roach are adamant that anyone is welcome, regardless of ability, genre, or the crime they’ve committed. “We have to be open to everybody,” says Happi. “Sometimes prisoners are hiding stuff. I know that. I know their stories—prisoners talk. There might be an artist who you know killed someone and cut a body into pieces, and one day you find yourself in the studio doing a take saying, ‘Bro, that was sick.’ You have to forget it.”


For people like Jeje, a 21-year-old Nigerian woman who’s been incarcerated in New Bell since 2020, the studio is a sanctuary. Back when her parents were struggling for money and couldn’t afford her school fees, they sent her to live with her uncle in Douala. He turned out to be abusive, so she stole some of his money in hopes of returning home to pursue a career as a musician. She ended up on the run in Douala for a year, hiding from her uncle. Eventually, he found her and handed her over to the authorities, who hit her with a sentence of three-and-a-half years.

Some prisoners standing in a corridor leading to the Texas quarter of prison

Some prisoners standing in a corridor leading to the Texas quarter of prison. Photo by Dione Roach.

Jeje finds New Bell extremely hard. “It is very bad,” she says, “because there are a lot of rules that you have to respect. And people are always tempting you, pushing you to do things.” Not being a French speaker makes life difficult, too, and she often struggles to understand wardens or other prisoners. Jail Time has given her hope. “When I heard there was a studio in the prison and I could go there, I found it less terrifying,” she says. “I could go and hang around with people, make songs. It really helped me. If there was no studio, I don’t know what I would have done.” Now, she’s made more than 20 songs, culminating in a drill-influenced R&B single called “Show Me The Way.” Jeje is Jail Time’s first female artist, and the single was accompanied by a video directed by Roach, shot at night inside the prison on the women’s wing, featuring several other female prisoners. Jeje’s debut album is due out this year, inspired by artists that she admires like Koffee and Burna Boy.


Stone Labarik, 37, is an ex-member of the Cameroonian presidential guard and a rapper who helps record sessions in the New Bell studio. He’s been in prison for six years and five months, part of a decade-long sentence for armed robbery and desertion. Labarik maintains he’s innocent—he says he left his military weapons at a friend’s house without knowing the place was being used as a refuge after an armed robbery. When the police burst into the house, they found his guns and accused him of being involved. “I have learned a lot in prison,” he says, speaking from inside the prison studio. “I’ve found God. It’s the only hope I have. My friends and family have abandoned me. I’ve learned a lot of life lessons since I’ve been here.”

Labarik started making music in high school but stopped when he joined the army—it was in New Bell that he rediscovered his passion, and he released a gangster rap cut in 2020 through Jail Time called “Fils du terre terre,” influenced by his childhood idol DMX. Its music video was the first one shot inside New Bell, a cinematic black-and-white visual featuring a crew of fellow prisoners backing him up. Creating it is something he remembers fondly. “It was the first time that professional cameras were in the prison,” he says. “We were shooting videos from morning until night. It was really exciting. There was a lot of joy that day.“ He’s still making his own songs, but under Happi’s tutelage, he’s found a passion for helping other artists coming through the studio. 

Macabo Gattè dancing in the kitchen of the prison a traditional dance from the south-west region of Cameroon. The costumes are hand made in prison by the dancers through shedding the plastic rice bags

Macabo Gattè in the kitchen of the prison, dancing a traditional dance from the south-west region of Cameroon. The costumes are hand made in prison by the dancers through shedding plastic rice bags. Photo by Dione Roach.

Some artists working with Jail Time are trying music for the first time, others are rediscovering a love that had maybe disappeared. Like Labarik, they’re all learning invaluable new skills. Once prisoners are released, it’s not easy for them to adapt to life on the outside, which is why there are now two Jail Time studios—one inside, and one outside in Douala. “In prison, the studio has a huge impact because it gives them something to do: a focus, a goal, a lot of hope,” says Roach. “It structures the days and gives them freedom to express themselves. Outside prison, once they leave, it becomes more difficult. Rehabilitation into society is complicated. A lot of them have drug addictions, and they might be on the streets. That’s why we built a studio outside prison as well.” 

The Arab of Chicago gang on the last day of Ramadan.

The Arab of Chicago gang on the last day of Ramadan.

While speaking to these artists, it’s clear how much pride and hope Jail Time Records has given them in a place that Happi describes as “very violent.” Next, the label is moving into new territories. The Douala outpost has been such a success that Roach and Happi are opening a studio inside a prison in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and another in Ngoma, Cameroon. They say they hope to shift people’s perceptions about prisoners and encourage the idea of rehabilitation, empowering a community of artists who are on the inside looking out, trying to reach the world with their art.