Monday, 19 October 2015

Behind the Silver Screen: British Prison Films

Ask people to name famous prison films and the betting is that most of them will feature the US prison system in all its grim aspects. Titles that sprung immediately to mind include The Shawshank Redemption (1995); Escape from Alcatraz (1979) or Cool Hand Luke (1967). I’ve quoted examples of incidents from all these films in various posts on this blog, along with a whole one dedicated to the lessons of Brubaker (1980) when it comes to prison councils. It’s clear that the prison movie genre is heavily dominated by the US industry.

Not just about prison rape
Ask the same folk about British prison films and the list seems to be much shorter. Most people of a certain age seem to recall the borstal drama Scum (1979) mainly because of the infamous rape in the greenhouse episode, but more recently we have had Starred Up (2014) starring Jack O’Connell as a violent and troubled young offender. Beyond that, some might recall Porridge the movie from 1979, although the television comedy series starring Ronnie Barker is much better known.

In fact, British prison themes have been used fairly frequently; it’s just that their Hollywood counterparts seem to hog the limelight of popular consciousness. That is a shame because there is so little knowledge of our prison system among the general public, or at least those who have no personal or family experience of imprisonment.

And dad's gone prison gay
Beyond the regular diet of salacious gossip leaking out into the tabloids about former celebrities inside the nick or particularly notorious prisoners, there are occasional worthy documentaries produced when intrepid film makers have ventured behind bars and into the dark side. These do offer genuine insights into life inside, but don’t attract the mass audiences that the great classic prison movies have achieved.

Personally, I do blame both Scum and The Shawshank Redemption for fuelling male fears of gang rape that terrify so many first-timers as they head from court towards the prison gates locked in the tiny cubicles of GEOAmey transport vehicles. Even Starred Up required the obligatory enforced public nudity followed by a violent scrap in the showers, topped off by O’Connell’s character realising that his own dad has gone 'prison gay’. Is it any wonder that many first-timers are scared shitless as they stagger double handcuffed down the sweatbox steps towards Reception?

Less brutal than Scum
In a different way Borstal Boy (2000), based on the autobiographical book by Irish ex-con Brendan Behan and staring Shawn Hatosy and Danny Dyer, provides a very dated and often inaccurate picture of the life of young offenders back in the early 1940s. Although there is some reference to brutality between the youths, the main focus seems to be more on the unfolding sexual tension between the two main characters. Watching this film would probably not be a particularly good preparation for life in our dysfunctional and violent present day Young Offenders Institutions.

Of course, there are other British prison movies available. Bronson (2008), starring Tom Hardy, focuses on the human freak show presented by the rather pitiful character of Charlie Bronson (now renamed Salvador), widely billed as “the most violent prisoner in Britain” by the tabloids. Although utterly unrepresentative of life behind bars, the film does perhaps shine a light on the terrible impact of years of solitary confinement on an individual who evidently suffers from serious mental illness, as well as the Prison Service’s inability to manage unstable or dangerous inmates with any real degree of humanity.

Bronson: voyeuristic?
I can’t help feeling that the Bronson film effectively reduces a very damaged and disturbed man into a kind of circus sideshow. It has more in common with 18th century gentry paying visits to watch the inmates of Bedlam perform and howl in their chains and misery. Actually rather voyeuristic, and quite sick in its own way, even if it is based on Mr Salvador’s own writings about his tortured life in isolation cells.

There are much worthier – and more insightful – UK prison films out there. Two that don’t often seem to figure in anyone’s top ten are The Escapist (2008) which stars Brian Cox as lifer Frank Perry who is planning to escape in order to rescue his drug addicted daughter. I won’t spoil it by revealing the plot for the benefit of those who haven’t yet seen the film, but it does highlight the widespread prevalence of gambling in the nick on anything and everything – something that seems to be rarely touched upon in most British prison movies.

John Simm in Everyday
One of my personal recommendations is the more recent film Everyday (2012) produced by Michael Winterbottom and starring John Simm as a convicted drug smuggler serving a lengthy prison sentence. The power of this movie is that it was filmed using real time-lapse sessions over a five-year period, so the actual characters – including the inmate’s family – genuinely age as the film progresses. It not only provides a graphic portrayal of time going by forever, but also focuses on the daily struggles facing the wife and children of a serving prisoner, including the battle to get to visits when you have to rely on public transport. I think this is something that is all too often overlooked.

I didn’t get to see Everyday when it was broadcast by Channel 4 because I was banged up inside myself when it premiered. In some ways I’m glad I waited until I had been released before watching it. Although it lacks the brutal violence and high drama of Bronson, Scum or Starred Up, I commend the film for its gritty portrayal of wasted life and lost time which almost all prisoners experience during their period in custody. In many ways it does give a more authentic impression than most similar productions.

On hunger strike in prison
There are also a few overtly political films – with British prisons as the backdrop – such as In the Name of the Father (1993) and Hunger (2008). Both address different aspects of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. In the Name of the Father focuses on the terrible miscarriage of justice that was behind the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of the Guildford Four, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon. In contrast, Hunger deals with the political hunger strikes by members of the Provisional IRA and death of Bobby Sands and others in the Maze Prison in 1981.

Although I must confess to a certain guilty pleasure in watching prison films, despite having experienced incarceration at first hand myself, I do find there is a temptation to try to spot inaccuracies and improbabilities in the portrayal of life inside. While some aspects of Starred Up seemed authentic, there were also a few implausible situations, presumably introduced to develop the dramatic tension. I often wonder whether any of these productions could be improved by having an ex-con on the team as a reality consultant.

The very fact that British prison films continue to be released every couple of years does indicate that there is still a popular appetite for jail-themed movies and television dramas. Most soaps now seem to include an obligatory prison sub-plot in which a key character gets banged-up for a few episodes.

However, what is almost always lacking is a realistic insight into the sheer boredom, humiliation, fear and grubby drudgery of real life in prison for the thousands of men, women and children who live through it day after day, year after year. Vast, overcrowded human warehouses where rehabilitation is non-existent, but substance abuse, debt, self-harm, neglect and even suicide are all part of the picture. Now that really would be a challenging artistic project to sell.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Brave One (Guest Contribution)

This is the first in a planned series of guest posts from those contributors who have personal experience of different aspects of our criminal justice system. Jonathan Robinson is the author of two books about his own prison experiences - In It and On It - and he is an active campaigner for prison reform. He highlights the urgent need for a focus on education, literacy and vocational training in our prisons as central elements in rehabilitation and reducing reoffending.

Jonathan Robinson
When in prison (as a customer) I was always amazed by the good manners exhibited by most fellow inmates towards members of the fairer sex. Recently on a prison visit with the (proper) author Martina Cole, as a number of us journeyed outside pathways within the establishment, we passed a group of inmates traversing in the opposite direction – and very jolly they were too. Lots of elegant “welcome Miss” and “thank you for coming” demeanour flew around the acoustics. Frankly, the manners displayed were unquestionably better than the pristine occupants of Westminster during the fundamentals of Prime Minister’s Questions.

I stopped and chatted to one of the friendly mob. He grinned a pure swashbuckling Colgate smile – and having no idea that he was conversing with an ex-prisoner – remarked that I was a “brave one” in that I actually engaged in conversation with a (shudder) “serving prisoner”.

A brave one? I think not. I just like chatting with inmates – especially those who want to engage – get their teeth into rehabilitation; capitalise the time they are serving with productivity. The partial quota within that division is larger than you can possibly imagine.

Bravery is something that I wish (in spades) upon our new Justice Minister, Michael Gove. For in order to significantly sort out our dismal prison system he’s going to have to rip-up a lot of the existing stuff (not) going on – which inevitably is going to essentially significantly cheese someone off, some salutary organisation – or some tabloid paper – you know, the ones that invariably refer to prisoners as ‘lags’.

Michael Gove: reformer?
Fact of the matter is though – England and Wales’ daunting current re-offending rate is blighted bottom of the statisticians’ E.U. league and hefty reform is needed now to address this. Mr Gove has incomparably made more than all the right noises insofar as acknowledging all is not well – as is – dans Porridge land and that he intends to fix it.

I have – for an awful long time now – been assuredly banging on to politicians, routinely mumbling dissatisfaction about the lack of purposeful activity in ensconced clink, making a complete nuisance of myself with a barrage of whys and wherefores... The same politicians who all to a man emphatically invariably see the recalcitrant prison issue as “an election loser” – the request to reverse that notion and make our fundamentally awry lamentable prison system something we can all be proud of – and Mr Gove’s initial toe in the water has been widespread welcomed by the rejuvenated prison reform mafia. The community who drone-on about fixing our primitive prisons of late has a potent spring in its step with the refreshing rhetoric coming from Mr Gove’s direction. Long may those atmospherics continue.

Be of no doubt however, that Mr Gove is going to need to be really brave in his reforms – for whatever he does – inevitable criticism is going to head his way. I hope he bites the perilous bullet – rides the storm – and stirs up a wayward disastrous system that for far too long has been asleep at the wheel, falling long short of its brief to rehabilitate its houseguests.

If he manages to hold-out – and insists on change – no matter who whinges; then that’s bravery...

(The author of this guest post, Jonathan Robinson, is a former prisoner turned author. His website and more information about his books and prison reform campaigning work can be found here).

Friday, 2 October 2015

Prison Reflections: the End of Summer

Now that we are into autumn, I have been reflecting on the impact of the seasons on life inside our prisons. I went into jail in the winter months and experienced a few springs and a couple of summers in closed conditions, as well as one glorious spring and a summer in a Cat-D (open prison).  

Summer sun... can be hot in prison
Of course, our personal responses to particular times of the year – or anniversaries or public holidays – are often determined by our past experiences and memories. Sad or tragic occasions can be recalled even more sharply than happy times. That’s why the Christmas season, as I’ve written elsewhere on this blog (read here), can be a period of deep mourning tinged with regret and a sense of loss for many inmates.

I can only guess at what the passage of the seasons means for those serving sentences far, far longer than my own. I’ve known men who have been inside for over 30 Christmases – and that also means they've lived through a similar number of seasonal cycles. That’s why the sheer enormity of a true life sentence is hard to comprehend to anyone who hasn’t lived through one – myself included. And in many cases that’s also true for victims of horrific crimes and their family members, as well as for the loved ones of those who are serving time inside. 

Annual cycles of memory may take us one year further away from trauma yet the pain rarely abates, although it may dull with the passing years. Loss – of life, of loved ones, of youth, of opportunity, of future – is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of the most serious crimes.

I don’t have a personal favourite when it comes to the seasons. I enjoy the springtime as much as I enjoy the autumn. My own memories of summers, in particular, are happy. As pretty much everyone observes in middle age, the summers of our youth always seemed so much longer, as if they could last forever. Now the few really hot days of the English year usually disappear in the blink of an eye and we are back to autumn, with winter just waiting around the corner. 

Time: waits for no man
How true are the lyrics of the Pink Floyd song Time: “Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.” I remember first listening to those words when I was at school aged about 11 – and true to form – over 40 years have just gone by as if in an instant. I didn’t understand the real meaning then, although now I think that I do.

Inside closed prisons it can be difficult to keep track of the seasons, particularly if you are unlucky enough to be jobless and experience 22 or 23 hours per day of bang-up in your cell. Although I always tried to take full advantage of whatever opportunities I had to use the exercise yards and get some fresh air, I also noticed that many fellow inmates in closed jails rarely left their cells. I could name quite a few who I’d never seen on a yard over all the time I’d known them. 

Occasionally, the yard was almost empty even when 30 minutes of exercise was on offer (and not cancelled owing to staff shortages or security alerts). A few of us would agree between ourselves beforehand to go down and trudge together round the asphalt enclosure surrounded by the high mesh fence topped with coils of razor wire. In a few nicks there was a view of a lawn or even a small garden, although the worst were modern design prisons built around courtyards overlooked by cell windows. You were totally enclosed on all four sides, with only the sky above. Oscar Wilde accurately dubbed it “that little tent of blue, which prisoners call the sky” in his Ballad of Reading Gaol.

On the exercise yard
Summer can be a mixed blessing in closed establishments. True, more prisoners do venture out into the sun, especially during weekend exercise periods when you might be allowed outside for an hour. In the scorching heat of my first summer in a Cat-B we’d sit on the hot ground around the perimeter fence and chat with friends and acquaintances. Some lads even took off their t-shirts and tried to get a tan, although in theory this was prohibited. Severe sunburn, like illicit tattooing, is regarded as a form of self-inflicted injury.

The downside of a hot season is that some cells can become baking ovens, particularly when the new type of security window has been fitted. These don’t open at all, being closed units with a tiny side vent that can be opened or closed using a knob. When the mechanism is broken, the air inside – especially when it is a shared cell – can become unbearably hot. Keep a dog in such conditions and the RSPCA would be round breaking windows and handing out court summonses for animal cruelty.

In these humid conditions, when even breathing normally can be an effort, some of us were reduced to living in our underwear when we were locked down. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that tempers rise with the temperature and, in some cases, violence can flare up between inmates or towards members of staff. Such situation can be made much worse when a pad-mate is on methadone or some other medication, let alone taking illicit substances, such as so-called ‘legal highs’ such as Black Mamba or Spice which continue to plague our prison wings. 

Cell windows that open... luxury
In one Cat-B it was a joy to be in one of the upper tier cells during the summer. This particular establishment was a grim Victorian pile, but did have one massive bonus: proper windows that really opened wide on each side. Plus there was a welcome view over the prison wall to fields and trees in the distance (if you overlooked the car park of the industrial estate next door). Those windows pretty much saved my pad-mate and me during one hot summer as we’d press our faces to the open frame and drink in the cooler air.

Of course, the winter months could also be pretty awful, particularly if the in-cell heating failed, as it sometimes did, and the pipes went stone cold. Strict limits on quantities of bedding, particularly blankets meant that cold cells were more like meat freezers. We’d huddle in our bunks wearing several layers of outer clothing.

Walking round the landings
Occasional flurries of snow meant that exercise was usually cancelled due to what was termed ‘inclement weather’. This is prison-speak for screws not wanting to be standing round in the cold or rain and is often the justification for not providing any fresh air or outdoor exercise. On days like these, if we were lucky, cells might be left unlocked for 30 minutes so we could wander round the landings instead, although when staff number were down we’d be locked back behind our doors again.

We certainly reconnected with the seasons at the open prison where I spent the last year of my time inside. Having arrived in late spring I was amazed at the amount of time we could spend outdoors at an establishment with not even a fence to keep us in, let alone a wall topped with razor wire. That year we had a particularly hot May and I volunteered to work on assembling a consignment of supermarket stock trolleys for a commercial contract the establishment had won. I spent five glorious days out in the sun working with a small group of fellow cons, including one lad I knew from a previous jail we’d been in together (which is, truth to tell, how I wangled such a cushy – and pretty well-paid – temporary job). 

There was no staff supervision whatsoever in that area and we just sorted it all out ourselves. It was almost like not being inside at all. Out in the warm spring air, in the sun, down by the prison vehicle sheds. Only a complete fool would have been tempted to abscond. 

A man looked out through prison bars...
That was the prelude to a memorable summer. We were free to spend free time walking round inside the ‘bounds’ of the jail, including the large sports field near the residential units. At weekends and after work we were free to lie on the grass, chatting or snoozing. We were even allowed to sunbathe (in moderation) and buy suntan lotion. 

When I walked on the field it was the first time I’d stepped on grass for a couple of years. In so far as prison life can ever be enjoyable, I suppose that was one of the high points.

Having now spent two summers out of prison since my unexpected release, I’ve certainly come to value the freedom and the fresh air much more highly than I did prior to being sent down. Whenever I look out of the windows at the sea or potter around our garden, I have a heightened sense of enjoyment and appreciation.

However, I’m still mindful of good friends I’ve left behind who are still inside, some facing many more years before they will get a chance to leave the confines of closed prisons. Sadly, some may never make it. I hope that they have at least a few happy memories of bright spring days, brilliant hot summers, mellow autumns or crisp winter days, when they were young and still free, to sustain them as we head towards the end of yet another year.