sat 22/01/2022

Wormwood Scrubs, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

Wormwood Scrubs, ITV1

Wormwood Scrubs, ITV1

Does prison work? As a documentary, yes

Last night in Wormwood Scrubs a prisoner hanged himself. Successfully. A doctor confirmed “that life is now non-existent”. Later on the same wing it happened again, only this time the suicide attempt didn't come off. For many years it has felt as if the great tradition of television documentary is now non-existent. Programmes like this give you hope that, like that second man on a wire in D Wing, it might just pull through.

The workplace fly-on-the-wall has been a collectors' item ever since the channels started to multiply. The economics of embedding a film crew in a specific milieu, sometimes for years, became unsustainable. Proper observation dwindled into the formulaic flotsam of the docusoap, set in airports or hotels or department stores, staffed by "characters" whose "narratives" were sculpted in the edit suite like hedgerow topiary. But unless I’ve had a memory malfunction, the cameras were never allowed to nose around the prison service. Some things are beyond triviality.

Within current parameters, Wormwood Scrubs feels like a responsible piece of television. Its snapshot of contemporary prison life makes a reasonable effort not to tart itself up as entertainment. With less than two hours of broadcast time to play with, it does have a lot to pack in - everything from CC TV footage of yard scraps and drug drops to aria recitals in the prison chapel. The misleading result is that the Scrubs doesn't feel like a place where crushing boredom rules. Here on primetime it's kicking off all the time.

Last night's episode focused on two difficult prisoners, both in their 20s. One was a cell-wrecking troublemaker, always in and out of solitary – “non-compliant”, in the jargon - whose petty complaints and threats of self-harm were an extreme form of attention-seeking, and a huge drain on human resources. The other was a “poor coper”, a homesick felon who periodically chopped up his forearms for real: he pulled up his sleeve to exhibit the latticed flesh. Both in their own ways were profoundly infantilised. The guards had the measure of them, but had no choice but to respond to their manipulative behaviour. “You save one person from doing it then it’s worth it, isn’t it?” said one officer.

Why they work here is a question for a programme with more time to kill. The staff who do their best to keep order are either born with the patience of Job, or have it carefully trained into them. It’s a thankless task cuffing and lugging miscreants from cell to cell, negotiating over toiletries with the mentally ill, or checking rectal passages for secreted mobiles - crucial tools in a drug trade that is so lucrative, claimed one prisoner, that people are committing crimes just so they can do a stretch and boost their income.

Names and job descriptions flashed up on the screen: diversity officer, first night centre officer, security governor. The senior seg officer – seg for segregation – was captioned as “Diana Officer”, her surname presumably changed thanks to a death threat she mentioned with a wry shake of the head. If the programme came close to fielding a figure from a docusoap, it was this crook-toothed television natural. Her tolerance for misbehaviour bordered on the maternal. “He weren’t a bad kid,” she said of the demented troublemaker after he was transferred. “He was daft.”

Whether prison works is a question Wormwood Scrubs does not quite get round to asking. “In a very small minority,” said the governor of the most damaged prisoners, “it becomes exceedingly difficult to do anything.” This being modern television, the very small minority were naturally the ones who made it on screen.


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With respect, I think you have had a memory (or research) malfunction, because I can remember quite a few TV documentaries about prison. There was a daytime programme transmitted live from two different prisons on BBC1a few years ago, and there has definitely been a programme or series about Holloway in the last few years, and there have been others. I was working in Wormwood Scrubs in 1990 when Channel 4 featured the Scrubs in a series called As It Happens. This series would take a particular workplace or institution a week, and broadcast live for an hour a day, Monday to Friday. (In the case of the Scrubs they had to video on one day and broadcast the next - as security issues made it too risky to transmit live.) Andy Kershaw was the well-chosen front-man - going all round the prison talking to staff and prisoners alike in with a friendly down-to-earth manner. Having worked in prisons for 20 years, I know that your comment about "a place where crushing boredom rules" is spot on, and although the incidents in this programme obviously did take place, it gave an over-dramatic, sensationalised view of prison life. In contrast, As It Happens had time for everyday life to unfold, and it had a very different tone to Monday's documentary. Also, it gave the chance for some TV naturals to shine out, but there was certainly no time to sculp narratives in the edit suite (well put - I so abhor this in many docusoaps). I can never claim to have lived inside the experience of a prisoner - of course - (and have never worked in a women's prison) but having walked wings and sat in cells, and talked to every kind of prisoner for years, I'd say there's a lot more of TV's "Porridge" about prison than many people might think - particularly in the very recognisable characters, and the way staff and prisoners interact day-to-day. I just caught moments and characters like this in between the panic and dramas shown the other night. If As It Happens is hanging around in some archive, I do commend it. And if I - or one or more programmes - had more time to kill, as you said, you would certainly get to understand that working in prison is far, far from being a thankless task.

If this was a true account of prison life and I am told it is, why was there no mention of the Independent Monitoring Board? A member of this organisation has to be present at adjudications (or checks up on them very soon after). It is a legal requirement for a prison to have one of these Boards without which the prison cannot operate. These Boards are made up entirely of volunteers and generally when we see news items about reports by prison inspectors they are using the reports prepared by the IMBs. Members of the IMBs constantly monitor that prisoners and staff are treated fairly and in accordance with rules yet they never get any mention - why is this?

why haven't they put it on tv catch up??? a friend of mine is in wormwood. i saw part 1 but missed the second part. why is it only the programs i wana watch that are never on catch up?? where can i watch part 2???

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