Every once in a while the media sends itself into a frenzy about the ineffectiveness of the prison system. Why? Because someone in HMP Wherever took a selfie featuring a dirty mirror, on a mobile they shouldn’t have had; cue headlines declaring everyone at HMP Wherever a ‘stain on humanity’ or ‘waste of oxygen’, and blah blah blah about throwing away keys. Anyone with a bit of time on their hands takes to waving a placard, pleading for reform or sitting quietly, arms crossed, judging from an armchair. Then, it all blows over.

Well, until HMP Wherever’s wannabe PR guru ends up with a topless selfie on the front page of The Sun. Debate begins again. The second time around,  the death penalty nostalgists surface, longing for the days of breakneck performances on the gallows. And rumours circulate that HMP Wherever isn’t a prison at all, but a five star hotel with: swimming pools, indoor cinemas, tennis courts, and a luxury store that sells novelty handcuffs. The fun only ends when Prisoner Zero starts to feel uneasy, thinking the Murdoch press might want to hack his mobile for a laugh. So, it ends up smashed to bits, never to be used again.

No one on the outside knows what it’s really like behind the cold metal doors of a prison, staring at the same four walls 24/7. But it might be a bit like Wentworth Prison. In which case prison is just like high school, expect: social cliques, inspirational speeches, bloody noses, the odd surprise pregnancy, all decisions to be made in the canteen, and everyone to avoid the showers. There are chances for the new kids on the block to climb the social hierarchy, dependant on their vicinity to the ‘Top Dog’; which also puts them on Governor Joan Ferguson’s hitlist. No one could replace Bea Smith and Frankie Doyle, right at the top, but being in the line of sight of corrupt and insane, evil headmistress doesn’t usually turn out well. Unless you’re pregnant, then she melts into a pool of malicious sludge.

No matter their commaradrie, the inmates of Larkhall had a tough time dealing with the rise of their big bad; a man so monstrous he must only ever be referred to by his surname, Fenner. He planted drugs on, raped, and murdered his way to the top; and made life a living hell for the Bad Girls. But between Fenner, prison escapes and library explosions; there was still fun to be had. There were pranks and playground games and business opportunities, specifically ‘Babes Behind Bars’; the number one hotline for sexually enthusiastic or deviant fellows who fancied a chat with ‘Saucy Sonia’ and ‘Whiplash Wanda.’

In comparison shows set in male prisons are tame, dull, one trick ponies that don’t dig too deep into the ‘prison experience’, being all about escaping. In Prison Break the sole motivation of any character is to breakout of the impenetrable fortress of doom they have found themselves in and live ‘on the lamb’and forever be the kids who’re ‘too cool for school.’ Of course, the Brothers Burrows were also trying to  bring down a generic evil organisation with an enigmatic name, The Company. Priorities. Working in the kitchens, building furniture or life modelling, just couldn’t compete with the fun of digging a tunnel with plastic spoons; worst archeological venture ever.

Only Porridge bothered exploring what life behind bars would be like in any meaningful farcical way, with all the inmates locked in a dilapidated building caught within a time warp somewhere between the Victorian era and the present day. To Fletch HMP Slade was a land of opportunity, a place where scheme after scheme whether a gambling enterprise or an agony aunt persona was a lesson learned. Along the way he got to wind up Mackay and Barrowclough whilst aiding his fellow inmates. All of which led him away from ever committing a crime again. The Sun wouldn’t plaster that story over its front page.

If TV is right-and there’s no  conceivable why we should believe it isn’t-prison is what you make of it,a concrete hell or the beginning of a second chance, with the odd homicidal maniac thrown in for a good time. That seems a fair deal, just avoid the maniac and you’ll be fine, enjoy a game of hide and seek for 28 days or more. The concierge would return your possessions on check-out.

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