Time: Uncomfortable truths behind hard-hitting prison drama
It’s the head-splitting sounds as the prison van arrives from court; the claustrophobia of a cell you’re never sure you’re safe in; the looming menace of the wing bullies who dominate the phones. Anyone who has been to prison as a visitor, worker or on a sentence talks about the sensory assault when they first walk into a prison.
Jimmy McGovern’s hit BBC 1 Sunday night drama Time shines a light on prisons and, more importantly, the prisons culture today. It tells the story of a middle class teacher (Sean Bean) serving a four year prison sentence for killing someone in a drink-driving accident. ‘Blown away by the brilliance’ (Mirror), ‘gripping, gruelling… essential viewing’ (Evening Standard). 5-star reviews have flooded in almost across the board.This weekend sees the last of the series, for those saving up (like my mum) for the ratings- winning final instalment.
To me, it felt initially like a busman’s holiday (my life is somewhat dominated by real-life prisons working as a media consultant in justice and with prison education charity Longford Trust) to settle down on the sofa for Jimmy McGovern’s latest drama. But so many friends, colleagues and family – yes, my mum again – asked me what I thought, I felt I had no choice but to watch and reflect.
So, is prison really like that? The simple answer is yes, as far as I understand it. The longer answer, it’s more complicated than that.
The people who really know are, of course, those who’ve been inside. Eric Allison for the Guardian found the portrayal of a system in meltdown all too true. From the inhumane ‘sweatboxes’ (those vans I talked about at the start, which take people from court to jail) to the ‘caging’ of mentally unwell people in prison who would be better off, for all of us, to get proper treatment. The only thing former prisoner Allison says the fast-paced drama doesn’t capture is the tedium. Yes, you see a few scenes in the sewing room, a nod to ‘education’, and facilitated talks with at risk teenagers in the chapel as a nod to supported rehabilitation. Yes, you see the drugs. But what you can’t feel is the endless boredom.
Chris Atkins did a stretch for tax fraud and for him too, Sean Bean’s teacher figure Mark Cobden stirred up many a painful memory of his own experience staying at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. He compared notes for the Times. Interestingly, he picks up on something I was very struck by, the hyper-vigilance prison survival requires (coping with whatever cellmate you’re given, dealing with intimidation phoning loved ones, knowing your room can be turned upside down at any moment in a spot-check). Yet the fictional teacher, as Atkins did through his literacy and counselling support, finds moments of tenderness and humanity, for instance teaching another man on the wing to read and write so he can communicate with family. It would be too easy to slip into despairing doom and gloom, but hope, goodness and potential shine through in dark moments.
The TV series was shot in the now empty Shrewsbury prison (it escaped the standard re-development into a boutique hotel!). Physically, it could have been almost any prison I’ve visited over the years. In the words of Jacob Dunne who himself has spent time in prison, turning his life around after meeting his victim’s family, doing a degree and now an award-winning broadcaster, ‘Time is a cultural exploration of time in prison, it reveals the toxic culture of prisons, where too often people come out worse than they went in.’
If Sunday night viewers don’t come away from this series and ask themselves – and decision makers – a few difficult questions, I’d be amazed. Surely, the uncomfortable truths of Time expose an urgent need for a better way to respond to people who commit crimes.
Covid has exacerbated problems in prison – no face- to- face education, self-harm among women has been particularly acute, preparing people properly for release all but fell away. Yes, there was the odd snippet in the news when the Chief Inspector of Prisons kicked up a stink and demanded change. But frankly, despite best efforts, a nadir of imprisonment was been conveniently brushed under the carpet. Time, the drama, has done what the covid crisis should have done but didn’t really. It’s seen mainstream media question how we do imprisonment, who we lock up and why.
I’d love to see Time part 2 on a women’s prison.