It must have been hard finding people – both inmates and their families – to take part in Life Behind Bars: Visiting Hour (Channel 4), a documentary about when inside meets outside, filmed at Low Moss maximum security prison in Glasgow. Most people in the visiting room have had their heads pixelated, suggesting they weren’t keen on being involved. Well, it is a private time, the one hour prisoners get to be with their families, maybe they don’t want it going out on Channel 4. Or maybe they haven’t told everyone exactly where it is Jimmy has gone away to. And here’s a guard whose face has been fuzzed out, what’s that about?
Anyway, Susan McGregor, whose film this is, has managed to find an interesting and varied cast to take part. Mark, 53, is doing five years and three months for drug trafficking. Mark is from Manchester and he didn’t understand anyone at HMP Low Moss to begin with; subtitles are a privilege that has to be earned – by getting out and watching it on TV. Mark got caught on his first trip to Scotland. He has done a few stretches south of the border – 14, he thinks. He was in Strangeways once, back in the day. “That’s when jails were jails,” he says, almost nostalgically. The good ol’ days, slopping out, all that.
Mark has three daughters visiting him today, up from Manchester, and a new granddaughter – his ninth grandchild, he thinks. He seems like a very nice dad, his lovely daughters clearly adore him, even if he hasn’t been around all that much. And he is funny, is Mark. “I’m not a master criminal, it’s just that I’m good and I don’t get caught,” he says, approximately halfway through stretch No 15. This cracks the girls up.
Mark says he is going to go straight when he comes out. He wants to get a job, so he can spend time with the family. “But you never know what is going to happen,” he adds, with a little smile. It looks as if even he does not believe it’s going to happen, so there is probably very little hope.
The same is true of David, 25, who has been in and out of prison for most of his short adult life. Seventeen months this time, for assault and breaching the terms of a court order. It is always drink that causes the problems. “I never thought I would end up in here,” he says, in his cell. “But this is my home, here, this is my existence. This is your life, this is your home, there’s your toilet, there’s your sink, there’s your TV and this is it.” Note the unconscious change of person, from first to second, as if he can’t face up to the fact that it’s his own life he’s talking about. Oh, and note the television too, some people will be cross about that. At least Mark can get his subtitles before he gets out. And there is a flush on the toilet too, not like Strangeways. Ahhh, Strangeways, happy days.
Then there is Mike, who speaks posh, no subtitles required. His father, a retired church minister from Cornwall, was planning on combining visits to see his son with a trip to Glasgow Science Centre. May as well, while he is up here. They discuss architecture, and Christianity. Mike says that some inmates convert to Islam and Judaism inside – but that’s just because they get better food. Mike, who is looking for forgiveness from his dad, is doing 14 years for the attempted murder of his wife. He had another existence, a secret second family in Scotland. How do people do that? I can’t even keep a bar of chocolate secret from my family.
There are contributions from the prison staff as well. Interesting stories about when prisoners get a little bit too intimate with their visitors, and about the snack shop. There have been marriage proposals, too. One inmate, Gary, is engaged to his girlfriend, Charley. She visits him every day, and wants to start planning the wedding, and saving. You need money for a wedding, she tells him. “You also need a fucking groom,” he says. Gary, who was convicted of murder aged 19, doesn’t have a release date. Then, when the hour is up, there are always tears.
This interface, where inside meets out, makes a refreshing, gentler change from the usual TV glimpses behind bars. No door-banging, or fights or prisoners so off their heads on spice they don’t know where they are or what they are doing. This is just as important, because it is about how prison affects the families of the people inside as well. It is still sad, and mostly hopeless, but also very human.