Jason Warr

For thousands of people in Britain, prison is a grim reality. For the rest of us, it holds a fascination that is all too often simply prurient. Jason Warr, a PhD student at Cambridge University who has served a custodial sentence himself, offers a critique of television documentaries filmed behind bars.

A good opportunity to explore some of the more important, rarely heard, stories to be found behind the walls was squandered.

Jason Warr

The past few weeks have seen a re-emergence of a media phenomenon that I had hoped had been consigned to the mists of a more ignorant age. I refer to the two voyeuristic documentaries made for Channel 4 television and filmed in British prisons, Lifers and Gordon Behind Bars.

Based on interviews with inmates, the Cutting Edge documentary Lifers was shot in Gartree Prison in Leicestershire; the series Gordon Behind Bars is set in Brixton Prison in south London and follows the progress of the irascible celebrity chef Gordon Ramsey as he attempts to set up a food business staffed by prisoners.

Prison particularly, and punishment in general, is a social practice visited upon more than 100,000 of our fellow citizens every year yet remains a hidden business, something that happens to others in some other place, a place away from where the business of the rest of society is conducted.

Like all things hidden or unknown, prison breeds a fascination and a thirst for understanding. This desire to know more is in many ways admirable: the torch of inspection, review and understanding should be shone into the shrouded dark of a society’s furthest reaches. It is through such projects that injustice, abuse, exploitation, malpractice and corruption are exposed and can be addressed. However, what was screened in the past fortnight fell far short of this noble enterprise.

Historically, documentary-makers who focus on prisoners, prison life and the carceral state have, with a few notable exceptions (Rex Bloomstein’s Lifers, 1984, and the follow-up Lifer - Living with Murder, 2004), fixated on the sensational, not to mention prurient, facets of that world. The approach has been somewhat scatophilic in nature, concentrating less on shining the proverbial light but instead wallowing in the murk and filth.

Of course, this approach has not been the sole province of documentary-makers. There is, lest they be forgotten, the ‘nick-lit’ brigade of writers who focus on, and thus perpetuate, the standard iniquitous mythologies about prisoners and prison life. However, I digress - the approach taken by the makers of Gordon Behind Bars and Lifers is designed to evoke an emotional response, to titillate, rather than provide a means of understanding. I refer to this form of reporting as penal voyeurism.

The two recent Channel 4 programmes are prime examples of the two flip sides of the penal voyeuristic coin.  On one side, we had Lifers, with its clumsy imagery (the fellow with his budgie) and spotlight on sad and broken individuals carrying the weight of years and a dawning horror of their actions. This is the Guardian-esque approach to prison reportage, painting the prison world as a form of Stygian purgatory.

On the other side of the coin, we have Gordon Ramsey’s effort with its visual attention on the situational control measures of bars, gates, locks, walls and so on. Ramsey’s focus is on the promotion of the work/responsibility ethos that has been popular with successive governments since the Thatcher years, the prurient interest in people’s offending history and the volatile machismo of a men’s local prison (though interestingly, and unusually, Gordon’s machoisms were consigned to the voice over). This is the Sun/Daily Mail-esque approach.

It is unfortunate that once again what may have been a good opportunity to explore some of the more important, rarely heard, stories to be found behind the walls was squandered. To sum up one ex-con of my acquaintance it was … “the same old, same old s**t!”

This is not to say there were not some redeeming points made, wittingly or unwittingly, in both programmes. I spent five years in Gartree (where Lifers was filmed) … five years on the same wing, in the same cell, looking at the same walls and I have often struggled to explain to people how that felt and what impact it had on me.

The major triumph of Lifers was how its makers managed to convey that sense of isolation and time away (the four World Cups as opposed to 16 years) and of time and lives wasted and the impact of that on the familial self (the man talking to his son on Christmas day was especially evocative). It was this sense of passing moments, moments that would normally be spent with loved ones, moments lost, that was poignant and moving and could have done with further extrapolation.

Oscar Wilde said: “We who live in prison have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter moments.”  This was what Lifers managed to capture.

Lifers also successfully captured the power of forensic psychologists in a prison setting. Many people in society view psychologists as benign curative entities with the best interest of the vulnerable at heart. This is simply not true in prison, where contact with psychologists is often coerced, and where psychologists have now become, in the words of Dr Crewe, ‘the new enemy of the prisoner community’. The reason for this? The power of their word.  As one of the men in Lifers pointed out, a psychologist could add ten years to a man’s sentence with ‘…the sweep of their pen!’.

For the lifer, psychologists are seen to fill a malignant position: central to their role is not the interests of the offender but the interests of the public - and these can often be in conflict. With nearly an eighth of the prison population of England and Wales serving some form of indeterminate sentence (such as life or IPP), a large portion of the prison population are now subject to the, largely unchecked, power of prison psychologists.

As for the Ramsey series, let’s hope that the inevitable ‘con done good’ hook will, in rather nauseating fashion, move away from the negative stereotypes thus far on show. However, one thing captured brilliantly by the programme was the form and function of the humour that lurks inside. Prison is not a place for smiles (you DO NOT smile on the landings) but it can often be a place of raucous laughter. Humour, often of the blackest kind, is a way of ameliorating the inescapable impact of being locked away.

It would also have been nice to have some form of follow-up on those that were cast aside by the (in my opinion, dubious) selection criteria employed by Gordon and the shows producers (and the prison). However, I feel that once discarded these chess pieces are not to reappear within this game and therefore our curiosity must remain unsated. A shame.

The third and final part of the first series of Gordon Behind Bars is screened on Tuesday night. What has shown promise for any future episodes, and what could be a saving grace for the series, is the innovation and bravery shown by the Governor in embracing change, challenging the cynicism of his uniformed staff and actually allowing the Ramsey project to take place. This should not be underestimated and needs further exploration. We can only hope that these facets will be allowed to emerge but, alas, I fear that the head chef’s ego conjoined with sensationalist editing will get in the way.

Jason Warr is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge. His research topic looks at Forensic Psychologists working in the modern prison. He gained a range of qualifications while in prison and did his first degree (Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method) at the LSE.

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