I received my first prison sentence in December 1957. I was 14. Set firmly, as I was, on a path of criminality, I vowed to get to know the workings of the system that held me. In crime, as in life, mistakes occur. And when they did, that knowledge allowed me to survive the 16 years, on and off, I resided in the dangerous prison system.
I gave up crime in 2003 when, almost by accident, I began writing for this paper about the system I had left behind. But I have kept my hand in, as it were, on the state of penal play. This has led me to keep tabs on books, films and TV shows that claim to present an authentic look behind the high walls.
The vast majority of “real-life” accounts have made me switch off pretty quickly. There are notable exceptions: the book A Sense of Freedom by Jimmy Boyle, Rex Bloomstein’s fly-on-the-wall TV series on HMP Strangeways and GF Newman’s TV drama Law and Order, which included A Prisoner’s Tale. All of these had the power to transport me back to the wings. After a long barren period, there is a new name to add to the list: Time, the three-part prison drama written by Jimmy McGovern for the BBC.
McGovern has serious form for pointing out the establishment’s often cruel, unjust way of doing things. Time does not disappoint
I tuned in hopeful. McGovern has serious form for pointing out the establishment’s often cruel and unjust way of doing things. Time does not disappoint: as usual, McGovern does not let his audience slip gently into the chaos. Instead, he slamdunks the viewer, along with the main character, Mark (played by Sean Bean), into a “sweatbox”: the cell-like vehicle used to transport prisoners from court to jail. His fellow travellers scream constant obscenities at each other, the guards and the world in general. A decent society would not transport a dog in this fashion – and yet this scene plays out every day after court.
Mark, a teacher on the out, is doing a four stretch. It is his first conviction and a universe away from the life he left behind. The madness doesn’t stop at the prison gate; the journey sets the tone for the constant mayhem that awaits him inside. Within minutes of his arrival he witnesses a violent assault; the days that follow do so in suit. McGovern creates scene after scene showing a system in meltdown. Sharing a cell, designed in Victorian times to hold one prisoner, he sees his cell mate “cutting up” or self-harming. In my day, this happened often in women’s jails but rarely within the male population. Now, it is as common as the drug-taking and everyday violence.
Why? Because many thousands of prisoners with severe mental health issues that, in a just society, would be treated with hospitalisation, are caged in environments guaranteed to exacerbate their illness.
All the drug-taking (and the violence that accompanies the highs) shows the corruption that enables drugs to be as easily obtainable inside as on the out. It’s a lucrative business that will continue for as long as inmates – and staff – conspire to allow it. McGovern’s focus on this takes in the travails of Eric (played by Stephen Graham), a decent prison officer who is also trapped in the system.
McGovern could be criticised for the sheer number of shocking scenes his protagonist witnesses and suffers. But there is nothing in the show that I have not seen first-hand during my time inside. Shocking incidents do occur, but they are bookended by the long periods of tedium and inertia that characterises prison life.
One poignant scene took me back to a rare uplifting experience I had in prison. Strangeways, 1969. A lad (let’s call him George) came to my cell with a letter his wife had written him. He asked if I would write a reply, so he could copy it. I knew that then, as now, illiteracy was an issue. Twice a week, some lads would be called out of the workshops to attend remedial classes. Some staff thought it amusing to call out “Let’s have the dummies.” Hardly an encouragement.
The letter from his wife was quite personal. I told him the contents were safe with me, but he may not be so lucky next time. And, just as Mark says to his visitor, I asked George if he wanted to learn? He said yes. It took about nine months (largely because I would go missing from the wing when I had spells in Punishment Block, now known as the Care and Separation Unit). Oddly enough, I can’t clearly recall how I taught him. What I do remember is the sheer pleasure I felt when, unaided, he wrote his first letter.
I have told this tale before, at the annual conference of the Shannon Trust, a charity that provides literacy programmes where prisoners who can read and write teach those who cannot. They are needed more than ever.
Time is a compelling, honest portrayal of a failed public service; a service that fails those it incarcerates, as well as the public who pay for it and suffer the consequences of that failure, not least in the obscenely high reoffending rates. McGovern has, again, lived up to his reputation.
• The final episode of Time is at 9pm Sunday on BBC One.