‘I’ve done a bit of escaping myself’ – an ex-prisoner picks the best jail dramas

From Time to Screw to Scum and now Black Bird, can drama ever capture the brutal reality of life inside? A former inmate reveals how they stack up against his own spells in the slammer

In prison, you have plenty of time to weigh up what’s truth and what’s bullshit. So whenever I watch a drama about crime and punishment, particularly one set in a jail, my first test is how quickly it takes me back to my spells in UK slammers.

The great prison dramas I’ve seen, from Jimmy McGovern’s Time to the new Taron Egerton show Black Bird, instantly give me a feeling of being inside again, as much for the sense of tedium as for the violence and mayhem that sporadically breaks the waste of everybody’s time. Channel 4’s recent Screw showed the mental health crisis and drug abuse afflicting prisons today. At one point, two characters discuss how the bulk of drugs get inside the prison walls. The verdict? “Officers. Not everyone in charge keeps on the straight and narrow.”

Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton in Black Bird.
The land of the free? Cobblers … Paul Walter Hauser and Taron Egerton in Black Bird. Photograph: Gavin Bond/Apple

If I were to go back in time, crime-wise, the last place I’d choose to break the law would be the US, where a few of my favourite prison dramas stem from. The land of the free? Cobblers. In the bang ’em up world league tables, it’s the biggest prison on Earth, by millions. Which brings us to The Shawshank Redemption, which I first saw in a jail. It was just like the scene where the inmates watched the Rita Hayworth movie. We were all very pleased with Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins: he took everybody in, and all the time he was planning his way out. I’ve done a bit of escaping myself. I actually escaped from Strangeways. I walked out with a forged high-court bail warrant. It was the sweetest feeling. So yes, I like the idea of escapes.

Although I never did borstal, I know plenty of young lads who did. So when I saw Scum, the excellent movie that was much praised at the time, exposing the truth about the young offender system, it felt realistic. Scum revealed a gang culture that the staff encouraged because the “top boys” would keep the rest in check for them. I could well imagine that.

The best dramas have me back inside faster than the courts ever did, though they still too often come with a taste of Porridge. That TV series had brilliant characters – Ronnie Barker was breathtaking as Fletcher – but some of the plotlines, even for comedy, come on! There was no “proper” violence, just one staged boxing match where the good guy took a dive! There was no tension, nothing about it that smacked of doing real time. I could easily have “been” in Alcatraz, but never HMP Slade. (Nor Orange Is the New Black, with its hair salon and Litchfield’s Got Talent show performed by inmates.)

If I had to choose a best-in-show, the one that ticked every box, it would be In the Name of the Father, a film about the Met police fitting up a family, knowing full well they had the wrong people. I knew the story was true and I regarded Gerry Conlon (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) as a dear friend, now sadly departed.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon in the 1993 film In The Name of the Father.
Best-in-show … Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon in the 1993 film In The Name of the Father. Photograph: Cinetext Bildarchiv/Universal/Allstar

I’ve also been in one of the then-numerous “bad” jails featured in that film. To be fair, though, I have also been in civilised prisons that had some semblance of decency – but only a few. Four “open jails” and one “Category C” closed institution, where most of the staff called you by your first name and treated you as an actual human being, rather than “offender”. Guess what? Their re-offending rates are lower than the average. Take note, former minister Edwina Currie, who infamously waved a set of handcuffs at an adoring Tory conference mob.

Other jails seemed geared up for producing re-offending, rather than redemption. When watching all these prison dramas, my sympathy almost invariably lies with those behind the cell doors, rather than those locking them in. Because the crimes done by the systems that oversee punishment, in the vast majority of cases and countries, are up there with the worst committed by those they incarcerate.

In Black Bird, the forthcoming series on Apple TV+, Jimmy Keene, played by Egerton, is a criminal in the US and clearly something of a wiseguy/made man” (WGMM). He gets nicked for dealing cocaine and is offered a plea bargain. So far, so normal. Then things get a bit tricky. Jimmy’s such a charming, affable character that officers ask him to pretend he’s criminally insane, so that he can be moved to a jail run for such offenders. Once there, they want him to extract a confession from Larry Hall, a convicted serial killer of young women, putting himself at immense risk. Larry, played by Paul Walter Hauser in a staggering performance, has already confessed and been sentenced to forever and a day, as they do in the US. But his appeal is imminent and the conviction could be overturned, on the grounds that his admission was forced out of him and may therefore be false.

Sean Bean and Stephen Graham in Time.
Almost faultless … Sean Bean and Stephen Graham in Time. Photograph: Matt Squire/PA

My first experience of a jail (or section of a jail) like this was in Brixton nick circa 1990. A wing was nicknamed Fraggle Rock, after the cartoon, and was run along the lines of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The men held there were filled with medication in daylight hours, when they could cause a control problem, and then left to their own tormented minds, which kept the rest of the prison population awake for most of the night. In one Category C jail, Preston, I had one such troubled prisoner directly above my cell. I complained to the governor – not about the racket, but about his clear lack of mental health treatment. The Gov asked me: “What business is it of yours, Allison?” I told him I was a human being who had, wrongly, assumed him to be part of our common race.

At one point in Screw, desperate prison guard Leigh asks a health worker to urgently see an inmate who is a potential suicide risk – only to be told that she’s too busy. Leigh says: “Remind me why we closed the asylums?” The woman replies: “Nobody liked locking up people with mental health problems.” That says it all.

Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Nina Sosanya in Screw.
For guard’s sake … Jamie-Lee O’Donnell and Nina Sosanya in Screw. Photograph: Mark Mainz

To assess the realism of Black Bird, I consult my WGMM manual, my reading of which makes Jimmy a snitch, no matter who he’s snitching on. At one point he gets his phone rights taken away by a guard – the same sadistic officer who spreads a rumour prison-wide that he’s a snitch. Again, this is something I’ve seen and indeed experienced. In Leeds nick, I was forcibly placed on the VP (vulnerable protection) wing and staff told cons I was a grass. Fortunately, I had a good name for standing up to the bully screws and I was fine.

Black Bird intrigues from the get-go. Having received a 10-year stretch for drugs, and possessing enough armoury to start a war, Jimmy starts ranting at the judge. What did you expect, Jimmy – probation? So what’s his game? His dad – played by Ray Liotta in his final acting role – was once a respected cop, which also doesn’t seem too far-fetched, especially in the US, where police corruption is widespread. In the UK, a convicted bent cop will be transferred to a cushy nick quick-time. I’ve seen it more than once. I never met the kid of a screw inside, but the one main failing in Time, Jimmy McGovern’s otherwise faultless drama, was that the screw’s jailed offspring would actually have been guarded round the clock.

Back in Black Bird, the ensuing battle of minds twixt the pair matches classics of the good v bad genre. Jimmy learns a lot about Larry, getting on his side by beating up a bully who wants to change the channel on the common room TV set – a classic clever move, if ever there was one. Once, in HMP Hull, I was knocked spark out by a single punch, unseen by screws, over who was next in line for the snooker table. Normally, I would have found the right time and place to pay him back. But then I learned he had taken a con’s eye out over a clash of TV programmes and got another life sentence on top of his first for murder. He was never getting out. I had just won an appeal and had my five years reduced to three, meaning I’d soon be leaving Hull. So I swallowed my loss of face and left him to do his time.

Black Bird is on Apple TV+ from 8 July.


Eric Allison

The GuardianTramp

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