You know the feeling when you’ve waited ages for a bus, then two come along at once? It seems like only yesterday that I reviewed Jimmy McGovern’s prison drama, Time, and referenced it as a rare example of authenticity – one of the few works that gave me a feeling of being back in prison. Then along comes Screw (Channel 4), which is every bit as good.
When I started writing about prisons – as a change from committing the crimes that occasionally landed me in them – a press officer at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) asked me if I would stop referring to prison officers as “screws”, as it was somewhat demeaning. My dictionary agreed; it defines the word as: “informal, derogatory, a prison warder”. I wonder if the MoJ have complained to Rob Williams, Screw’s creator?
In fact, the relationship between prison officers and those they lock up is, by far, the most important factor of the prison experience. Yes, of course, major policy decisions are taken at MoJ level, and governors have some degree of autonomy – although by no means as much as they used to (and should still have). But, in a nutshell, good screws make for decent prisons, bad ones turn them into hate factories.
Long Marsh, the setting for Screw, appears to be an OK jail, largely, perhaps, because it has a higher than average number of female officers in a male establishment. I remember when this came into being in our penal system, in the early 90s. The women’s presence lowered the temperature on the wings and landings.
The central character, Leigh (Nina Sosanya), a senior officer, who runs C wing, hooked me immediately. She is efficient, firm and fair, but married to the job to the extent of requisitioning a vacant cell in order to sleep. She believes her charges are “not bad people, they have just done bad things”. One sardonic sage of an inmate remarks that “she knows we are here for revenge, not rehabilitation”. As true a line as ever was. And the accuracy of the dialogue continues to shine when new recruit Rose delivers a gem to a patronising male colleague who asks her why she’s in the job. “Because I’m good at shutting up dickheads,” she retorts.
Screw also shows how our jails reflect the serious issues that exist outside their walls. In a scene familiar to me, a prisoner objects to being served halal meat. I challenged a fellow inmate who did the same, some 25 years ago, long before the current wave of anti-Muslim feeling swept into society. I imagine it to be commonplace in these darker days.
The two biggest problems in the system right now are mental health and drugs – related, of course. As much as I praised Time, I had issues with the plot, where villains went to great lengths to force Stephen Graham’s prison officer character, Eric McNally, to smuggle drugs into his place of work. Taking drugs into prisons is more tempting for prison officers than you might think, and Screw nails this truth. A male officer asks Rose how she thinks most of the drugs get into the prison. She suggests they are smuggled in on visits, or chucked over the wall. Dismissively, he replies: “Officers. Not everyone in charge keeps on the straight and narrow.” Spot on the money.
The profit margins soar way above street prices. Bringing a small amount of drugs into their workplace – particularly class A drugs – could earn them a couple of thousand pounds, for a relatively small risk.
How do I know? Because although drug dealing was never my game, I know plenty who played it and know where and with whom they placed their trust and money. From the other side, I have the word of a former prison governor, John Podmore – a good pal. He tells me his staff often seized hauls of drugs in his establishments, but his biggest find, by far, was discovered “strapped to the leg of an officer”.
Screw’s look at mental health in prisons also rings incredibly true. There’s a short flash of Long Marsh inmates receiving their daily liquid cosh. This is the slang for meds that, usually, leave those taking them spaced out – and not a threat to anyone. The way the inmates queued up like zombies to get their drugs reminded me of the medication scenes in the brilliant One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
But I think the line that best sums up the mental health problems in jails comes when a health worker is struggling to assess the number of prisoners who are on the Assessment, Care in Custody and Teamwork (ACCT) register – the care-planning process for prisoners identified as being at risk of suicide or self-harm. Leigh asks her to urgently see a potential suicide risk. The woman says she has too much on that day – and we see the bundle of ACCT files she is carrying – but will try and see the new guy “some time this week”. Leigh says: “Remind me why we closed the asylums?” Reply: “Nobody liked locking up people with mental health problems.”
Anyone wishing to know the facts behind the story should look at the latest MoJ figures on deaths and self-harm in prisons, published last week. It’s this persistent parade of truths about jails that makes Screw one of the best fictional prison tales. It’s rammed with issues and scenes that should shame those responsible for running this failing system.
Back in my bad old prison days, we used to say that we wouldn’t piss on a screw if he was burning to death – coined before women entered the male system. Not particularly edifying, but it summed up our feelings. In fairness, though, on my last sentence, a seven stretch that ended just before the millennium, I came across more decent prison officers than I had encountered in the previous four decades. Nowadays, they feel unloved, an officer in Screw laments, claiming that the public “love the police [questionable!], firefighters and NHS staff, but not us”. Did I love those who treated me with decency? I always started off being polite to screws – and everybody in jail. If they returned the compliment, we all did easy time. But there is one thing that I am very near to adoring – and that is Screw.