Ross Kemp Behind Bars: Inside Barlinnie review – Ross gets the inmate experience, minus the strip-search

Despite a few misguided stunts, the TV hard man provides a thorough look at our struggling penal system with a journey into the notorious Scottish prison. Plus: moving migration stories in Exodus: Our Journey Continues

‘I’m Ross Kemp and I’m going to prison” says Ross Kemp, as he’s cuffed and led into the back of a G4S van. Ha! Best place for him, some might say, and about time. What for, though? For having once been Grant Mitchell? Or having been married to Rebekah Brooks? Is this violence-related or something to do with hacking? No, it’s just his latest hardnut doc, Ross Kemp Behind Bars: Inside Barlinnie (ITV). As in the notorious HMP Barlinnie in Glasgow, AKA Bar-L and The Big Hoose, once home to Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, gangster-turned-artist-and-writer Jimmy Boyle, and (briefly) Duncans Ferguson and Bannatyne, footballer and Dragon respectively.

To understand what prisoners go through, Ross is going to be admitted like any other inmate, and that means a strip-search. Seems a bit harsh on the staff, no? Not only do they have dangerous, underpaid, unappreciated jobs in an institution that’s stretched to breaking point, but now they have to poke around inside a television personality from London. Oh, actually he’s not getting the full “cavity search”. Maybe they were worried he was so up himself they might find another Ross Kemp in there. Imagine that, two Ross Kemps Behind Bars! Plus they’ve got a special machine, scanning chairs and metal detectors that can find sim cards, weapons etc. It’s quite an eye-opener to see what gets “banked” – phones, spikes, knives, youch!

Ross instead is armed with a lot of statistics, about Barlinnie and about the UK penal system it’s part of. The prison population has doubled in the past 25 years. It costs, on average, £36,000 a year to keep each prisoner behind bars. Some 3,500 meals are made in the kitchen every day.

He delivers these in short, sharp, bursts, to emphasise the seriousness of everything, and perhaps his own hardness (“Today. There are 100,000 people. Behind bars”). All right, now get your troosers back on Ross, this isn’t Channel 4. He’s given a fetching outfit in Guantánamo orange, and led to the wing. “Ross Kemp walking” shouts a voice from one of the cells above. Are they preparing a special reception for him in the showers?

He’s locked in a cell, to do some reflecting on what prison is all about. Is he here to be kept away from society, because he’s a danger to people? Or is he here to be rehabilitated? Or simply to be punished? Hang on, how come there’s room for Ross, when the system’s so stretched? It’s not clear how long he’s in that cell for – I suspect not long. But he’s in and out of Bar-L for 10 days, and even if he doesn’t, or can’t, really experience what it’s like to be an inmate, he does at least meet and speak to plenty of people who do know. Like Hugh, a revolving door prisoner, who tells him, “It’s a fucking bear pit, mate,” and advises him not to give it the hard man (pay special attention to that one Ross). “Cos people just punch you right out of your trainers in here, mate, aye, this is Barlinnie mate.” Not Walford.

He meets other prisoners – a sex offender, a man who has become a heroin addict while inside. He talks to officers, joins a drug search, visits the kitchen and the gym, and meets the governor, who says too many people are sent to prison. So yes, it is thorough, legit, and addresses the issues, once you get past the stuntinesss. Lose the orange outfit, in other words, Ross.

No stunts or egos in Exodus: Our Journey Continues (BBC2) which picks up a few strands of THE story, the migration one, after last year’s powerful first series. We join Dame, who made it over from the Calais refugee camp to London, but then wasn’t granted asylum. “I do not feel I am a part of the human species. I feel more like a ghost,” he says. Further back down the line, in Greece, Nazifa must leave her husband and two children in order to be smuggled to Germany, alone, to have her third. Azizula is trapped in Belgrade, living in a freezing, filthy railway carriage. Ali and Shirin are on the streets of Thessaloniki, also stuck and desperate. And yet they find a moment to walk hand in hand, admire the sunset, have a bit of a giggle even; to be the newlyweds they are – even if this wasn’t quite the honeymoon they had in mind. It’s a rare chink of light, a welcome reminder of the resilience – even in the most desperate circumstances – of humanity and humour and love.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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