Prising Open the Prison System

Dave Kellaway reviews Jimmy McGovern’s brilliant new drama series, Time, starring Sean Bean, Stephen Graham, Siobhan Finneran and Sue Johnson. BBC 1 Sundays at 9pm but all 3 episodes available on the BBC iPlayer


Time tells the story of two men.  Mark, played by Bean, is a teacher from a working-class background but as a result of his drink problem kills a cyclist while drunk and is given a four-year sentence.  Eric, played by Graham, is a model prison officer with twenty years of experience who tries to do his best for the inmates in difficult conditions.  Mark welcomes his punishment, experiences extreme guilt and flashbacks but his middle-class background leaves him unprepared for the brutality of prison life.  Eric’s son is an inmate in a different prison which leads to him facing a huge dilemma when the prison crime boss tries to take advantage of it.

McGovern is one of Britain’s best dramatists. He has regularly addressed the way the penal system is an oppressive, unfair system, particularly for working people.  For example, watch his drama Hillsborough and the two series of the Accused.  He is able to show how the prison system, class, and race are interconnected without crudely characterising all prison officers as bad or reducing all problems of violence or crime just to class or race.  That is why he chose to have his main character be a teacher and guilty of a drink driving offence which is difficult to attribute to any specific exploitation.  We sympathise with the terrible choice Eric has to make to look after his son. This decision drives much of the dramatic tension through to the climax in the final episode.  McGovern does not do crude agitprop or preachy, boring stories. 

Nevertheless, the secondary characters, the stories of the other inmates that Mark meets and Eric deals with,  provide lots of opportunities to show how the penal system overwhelming deals with the consequences of a deeply unequal society which produces both people with psychological problems leading to violence and the deprived who choose economic crime as a solution to their daily struggle to make ends meet.

So we see Bernard – played brilliantly by Aneurin Barnard who is also in The Pact, another good drama on TV at the moment – who is Mark’s cellmate and self-harms.  Even the guards recognise prison completely fails to meet his needs.  He makes the comment that the number of staff supervising the inmates is roughly on a one-to-one basis. Each prisoner costs £30,000 and this huge prison ‘economy’ will tend to reproduce itself rather than countenance any changes.  Indeed private sector involvement has increased here and in the USA it is prevalent

Mark has another cellmate who is inside because he had stabbed another youth to death. He relates how it started from a stupid incident in a pub where he refused to pay for another pint after sipping the wrong drink.  He could not buy another drink because he only had £1.50 left.  He was afraid of losing face.  Then when he was being battered by the other guy who was a better fist-fighter he took out a knife just to stop the blows without meaning to kill.  Again to save face – the macho culture that our society does not do enough to combat at school,  in the media, or in the military, is also to blame but it is also connected to deprivation. 

Another black prisoner tells his story.  He robs a betting shop because his gambling addiction meant he had used up all his wages and he was too ashamed to go back to his wife again with no wages.  McGovern with his drama Priest, starring Sean Bean again, had an episode that was a brilliant condemnation about how the gambling industry exploits working people through the roulette machines in betting shops

The dramatic axis of the story both for Mark and Eric is the power of the crime boss inside the prison.  Why are the organised crime barons so powerful in British prisons?  If you create really awful confinement with far too many prisoners, where education, cultural or physical activities are so limited, where psychological and mental health issues are not addressed,  then there is huge pent-up demand for illegal drugs or other goodies.  As Mark states – prison is mostly just deadly boring. The violent bosses can intimidate more easily partly also due to the limited space, old buildings, and overcrowding. 

Despite the impression, you may get from the proliferation of Scandi noir on our screens crime is much less of a problem there.  Basically, if your society is less unequal you have less crime.  It means fewer prisoners and a system where the prison is much more humane and oriented to rehabilitation, education, and training.  At the same time, Tory ideology about making prisons boring, brutish, and hard punishment institutions helps perpetuate this situation.  How many people above a certain income threshold and education end up in British prisons?  Very few indeed I am certain.  The prison population is almost exclusively working class and BAME.

Jimmy McGovern

I like the way McGovern shows us that it is the structures that need to change.  It is not about nasty individuals.  Eric is confronted at one stage with the mother of a prisoner who unnecessarily dies because of the prison’s poor support and response to his issues.  He responds by saying most of them need mental health support, that they don’t have enough resources and they just do the best they can.

Not all is doom and gloom in this prison.  Mark helps another prisoner to read and write – the illiteracy rates in prison are staggering. Schools fail kids, expel them, and some end up inside.  A Catholic nun chaplain shows just how strongly people in the system fight to do the best they can. She is played by Siobhan Finneran…. who you may remember from another great northern-based show, Happy Valley.  Through her, we see the positive attempts at using prisoners’ lived experiences to try and dissuade young people at risk from choosing the criminal option. We also see how restorative justice, bringing victims and perpetrators together in a controlled way can help create closure and progress for both sides.

Indeed like McGovern, I was brought up as a Catholic and I can most certainly empathise with his focus on guilt, atonement, and forgiveness.  These are all issues that won’t disappear overnight if we can ever get rid of this wretched system. The society we want to build will still have to come up with ways of dealing with violent individuals or others who do not respect even a progressive society’s norms. 

In the meantime just as with the police we need to raise demands that challenge the way the penal system reproduces the existing conditions of capitalist society, ensuring the exploitation and inequality remain in place.  The call to defund or refund the police so that more resources are put into changing the social conditions that produce crime should be welcomed.  It is not just a case of tinkering.  For example, it is difficult to see how you can reduce gang or drug culture-related crime in the inner cities without legalising and regulating most illicit drugs. 

Too many people are sent to prison so we oppose the Tory mantra of ‘punishment works’.  Community ‘sentencing’ backed up with resources for rehabilitation and training should be supported.  I remember in the 80s commentators getting very agitated by the growing prison population that was around 48,000 at the time.  It is projected to be 84,000 by 2023 and the overall wealth and standard of living of our society have gone up in the intervening years.  BAME people make up 14% of the population but 25% of prisoners.  Veterans make up 10% which raises questions about how the armed services form and educate the young people who join.  The stated ideological aim of prisons is to help reduce crime but 75% of ex-inmates re-offend within nine years of release, and 39.3% within the first twelve months.

Prison is more like a control mechanism keeping working-class and BAME people locked up. It may reassure people who think punishment is good in itself but it certainly fails to reduce crime. You could argue it exists as a nursery for sustaining crime.  Taking a number off the streets every so often is not much use if the people leaving all the time are getting up to no good – it becomes a revolving door.  In any case of a lot of dubious illegal, fraudulent activity is carried out by the very rich, sometimes in collusion with organised crime, which never leads to any prison time.

McGovern explains what he wanted the drama to get across:

“[The series] says something that should be said about the penal system, and it’s not good,” McGovern says. “The British penal system is not good I’m afraid, it needs looking at.(…) There should be more meaningful activity in British prisons. There should be education and training and jobs (…) “At the moment, the vast majority of prisoners are locked up 23 hours a day because of Covid, but even when Covid isn’t there, they’re still locked up in cells for long periods of time, and they should not be. We should aim to send them out better than when they went in.”

Jimmy mcgovern

Just like Ken Loach, McGovern is one of the few writers who create TV dramas with complex, thinking working class characters.  He also insists on staying in the north and employing northern actors and actresses against the London centric domination of TV and films.  McGovern does not patronise, sneer or idealise but respects working people and expresses their dignity and difficulties.  Long may he continue to get his stories on our screens.

*ACR is hosting a debate about the police on 17th June at 18:30: Abolish the Police. Should we? Could we? More information can be found here.

More information about the state of British prisons and discussion about reforms and change are:

Prison Reform Trust

Howard League for Penal Reform

Criminal Justice Alliance

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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