Society: ITV’s Strangeways

The Strangeways riots in 1990 led to breakthroughs in the prison system

In some ways, HM Prison Manchester (more commonly known as Strangeways) is a Manchester icon. After all it gave its name to a Smiths album (Strangeways Here We Come). The prison itself was built in 1868 by Alfred Waterhouse, who later designed the town hall – and if you think about it these two buildings are a neat embodiment of Victorian urban life. On the one hand, public works, clean water, slum clearances and municipal socialism; the promise of reform, and on the other hand a dysfunctional system riven with violence, upper class moralising, authority; the threat of punishment. The carrot and the stick. So it’s easy for a Manc to think about Strangeways in symbolic terms.

At first glance the recent three part documentary on the prison broadcast on ITV (‘Strangeways’, 9th, 16th and 23rd May) appears to belong somewhere in this tradition. In the opening credits the camera slowly zooms in on a shot of the prison gates at twilight, while over the top we hear the voices of a group of prisoners in prayer: “I confess to almighty God, and to my brothers and sisters, that I have sinned…”

Music plays while a young man is led through a yard with his hands cuffed behind his back, a child of about five wearing her best outfit to visit her dad is searched and scanned with a metal detector, a man is carried along a corridor by his hands and feet, a voice shouts “move to the back of the cell and drop your weapon”, a young black man folds his arms in front of him and bows his badly bruised head. A heavyset man in an Everlast sweater spreads his arms wide to be searched with a look on his face that seems to carry all the sorrow of the world, a dog barks, a man in a gym lifts weights, a visitor holds a prisoner’s hand. Then the shadow of a cell door shuts against a black background and the word comes up on the screen: ‘Strangeways.’

With these kinds of images, and the powerful use of close up, cutaways, and sound effects, you could say that the producers have gone for a cinematic effect, but it’s less nouvelle vague and more angry young men. It’s ultimately a blunt piece of social realism and at times the grimness is unrelenting. The producers have chosen to fill the three hour long episodes with the personal stories of a limited number of individual prisoners, some of whom make one-off cameos, others who appear in more than one episode or throughout the series. Episodes are loosely structured around particular themes like the experience of Category A prisoners, the healthcare unit, and the prospect of rehabilitation and work after release.

Some of the prisoners thus depicted are quite sympathetic characters, often in surprising ways, and there’s a degree of unguardedness about some of the interviewees and an oddly endearing quality to their responses. “If I had a choice of getting plenty of [use of the] gym, or drugs all the time, I’d pick me gym,” says a meatheaded murderer serving a life sentence, before he stops and thinks for a moment; “I don’t know… I like both to be honest.” The prison staff also tend to come across well, and sometimes show their frustrations at being in effect the welfare state’s last port of call in the case of some prisoners. “I personally don’t think prison is the right place for [a particular mentally ill prisoner]… all we’re doing is keeping him behind a door because he’s too volatile and unpredictable to allow out,” says Sandra Fraser, the prison nursing manager.

Sometimes, with the camera in their faces inmates are disturbingly, heartbreakingly honest about their lives. A 29 year old homeless man, a drug addict who commits petty crimes as often as possible in order to get into prison, explains that he cuts himself “as a form of stress release – for about ten minutes…I’m 29, nearly 30, I’ve got no qualifications, I’ve got no one I can really call a friend. Out there I’m more concerned with getting money for drugs than what I am about my health. I’ve just come to terms with the fact that this is my life. This is how it’s going to be until I die, basically.”

The programme makers are clearly keen to avoid the accusation that they are excusing prisones of their crimes, and the narrator’s script makes it clear that there is a “hardcore element” that refuses to change. Thus they delight in interviewing the prisoner that shrugs when his television is taken away for dealing drugs: “Telly’s not a problem, it’s not an issue. I’ll lie on the bed for four and half hours, sleep for four and a half years… It’s a game of cat and mouse. I know that, all inmates in Britain know that, and the officers know that. There’s nothing they can do to you.” This isn’t just ‘feel bad’ telly, and it’s certainly not ‘feel good’ either. It’s just ‘feel lots’, and that’s the problem with this individual-focused, anecdotal approach.

By flitting from story to story, person to person, we lose sight of the social context and it becomes more difficult to draw conclusions that relate to larger matters of public policy. So we see a lot of Anthony Fielding’s kids, but what about the other 160,000 children in Britain with a parent in prison? It’s striking how many of the prisoners on the programme suffer from mental health problems, but the narrator never really highlights this issue or puts it into a broader context. According to a study by the Office of National Statistics 10% of male remand prisoners, 7% of sentenced men, and 14% of women were assessed by clinicians as having a functional psychosis (such as schizophrenia or manic depression), against a frequency in the general population of 0.4%.

Three quarters of female remand prisoners have significant neurotic problems such as anxiety, depression and phobias. As depicted in ‘Strangeways’, prison staff are generally aware of the issues around mental health, and they try to facilitate proper assessments of inmates who appear to be mentally ill, but it is abundantly clear that a significant proportion of prison inmates are not receiving the care that they need, and are not accessing that care quickly enough. Prison is the wrong place for most mentally ill people, but a lot of them are spending a lot of time there. A recent report by the Chief Inspector of Prisons found that mentally ill prisoners in OhDearism’s local jail, Brixton, sometimes have to wait more than six months for a place at a suitable secure health centre? Why is that? This programme won’t give us any clues.

There’s nothing wrong with using story telling to structure a documentary film, but you have to know what the story is supposed to illustrate. What, crudely speaking, is the moral? Granada’s World in Action documentary on Strangeways (‘Banged Up’, 1979) simply told the story of one day in the life of the prison, but used it to illustrate that training and rehabilitation of inmates were impossible in the grossly overcrowded conditions of the time. (Predictably, no one in Thatcher’s government paid any attention, and overcrowding continued through the 1980s and eventually lead to the Strangeways riot of 1990).

The 2011 documentary seems to show repeatedly that for some inmates ‘prison doesn’t work’, as Michael Howard wouldn’t say, but the producers are too nervous to come out and say it. Instead they try to provide resolution for the viewer with some ‘what happened next’ text over the end credits of the final episode: “Mark Greenwood stayed less than a month at his job at the Marriott Hotel before breaking his parole and going on the run…Anthony Fielding has been granted his move to Buckley Hall prison…David Charlton remains in Strangeways.”

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