I dare you not to look away…

What is the difference between ‘I had no idea’ and ‘I didn’t know’?

I ask this question in the wake of what must be one of the best television series in the past year: BBC One’s deeply uncomfortable and disquieting three-parter, Time.

It is described as: ‘Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting, brutally honest portrayal of a failed public service which gets everything right about prison life – minus the tedium.’ If you haven’t seen it – and sorry to my readers abroad if you can’t get BBC – I would like to invite you to watch it, even to dip into it for ten minutes. I’ll tell you why.

Having worked in many prisons in England, I feel everybody needs to know what is going on in them. In our name. There was nothing in the series that I didn’t recognise from my years inside. As I am up against a tight writing deadline for my book (and this blog actually!), I am going to allow the three episodes to speak for me and bear witness to the sheer illogic, and all too often, inhumanity of our current system.

This doesn’t apply to all prisoners, but if we recognise that many addictive, violent and destructive behaviours derive from childhood trauma; if we fully comprehend the impact of untreated traumatic incidents, then the cruelty of locking up people, who were first and foremost victims, in what are often little more than hell holes, becomes very clear. 

My admittedly provocative opening question stems from a genuine desire to understand the answer.

For decades, the adult-generation of Germans living through the Second World War have not been believed when they say, ‘we didn’t know’ (about the concentration camps). And people around the world often blame them for having looked the other way. I don’t want to get into that debate here. There is a consensus among historians that some would have known, some would have heard about them and not believed it, and others would not have known. Most of the camps were miles away in the east and there was little access to free press. There was also a deadly dictatorship controlling thoughts and actions. Yet not knowing, or knowing and not doing anything, allowed the deadly system to persist for as long as it did.

I have been talking to a wide range of audiences about my experiences of working as an artist in prisons for nearly three decades. The most common thing I hear afterwards is a shocked “I had no idea.” It’s totally valid, I make no judgment. There are loads of things I have no idea about. But why don’t more people know about this? There are prisons in nearly every major town. The shocking statistics of failure, the appalling conditions and the tragic stories of many of the people locked up in them are reported on all the time, in every form of media. How can we not know about them?

There is obviously a wide spectrum from having no idea, to knowing but looking away, to knowing and acting. I would just like to use this month’s blog to encourage you to become more informed, specifically about the system in which we warehouse prisoners. Not just for their sakes, but for all of us who live in the communities into which they are returned… usually worse.

When enough people ‘have an idea’, things can and will change.

Watching this series is a start. It’s tough watching, but the reality is much, much tougher.

I dare you not to look away.


Time review – Sean Bean and Stephen Graham astound in enraging prison drama

Time review – like a punch in the face, but in a good way

Time review: This gripping, gruelling portrait of life in prison is essential viewing

6 thoughts on “I dare you not to look away…

  1. As you say, Angela, a wonderful series which I really struggled to watch but it touches my heart now just thinking about it. Thank you for your blog, always wonderfully written and always touches me in some way.

  2. Thank you Angela. As a former police officer I thought ‘Time’ was a brilliant piece of TV drama highlighting some of the realities of British prison life. I also thought it was a bit of a reminder to the middle classes that prison is not just for ‘hardcore criminals’: nobody’s exempt (accept the Queen I believe). I don’t think there’s any doubt the British prison system is in mess. Too many people locked up (one of the highest rates in Europe), many in Victorian Jails, quite often for relatively minor matters, in extremely crowded conditions and under the ever present threat of serious violence . Add on the decline in mental health services over the last 25years, political pressure to hand out custodial sentances, privatisation of probation service and of course privatisation of the prison service; one doesn’t need to be a genius to work out how things have gone badly wrong. People should be incarcerated as a punishment – not incarcerated to be punished. Unfortunately, I think most people can’t ever imagine that they’d be imprisoned and therefore have little sympathy for prisoners (viewed as a total underclass). Hence, as there’s no votes in it, successive governments have failed to conduct a serious reform of prisons in the UK. Maybe more dramas like ‘Time’ will help to change views. For anyone interested in supporting reform in prisons I’d recommend joining the Howard League for Penal Reform (you can join online for a few pounds a month). The fact that the Howard League has its origins back to the mid19th Century kind of says it all though!

  3. What a great response Mick, thank you for outlining the key aspects of the system’s descent into the mess it is now. “People should be incarcerated as a punishment – not incarcerated to be punished.” says it so succinctly. Really appreciate your informed ‘insider’ thoughts.

  4. Thank you Angela and Mick too – I agree the idea that prison won’t happen to me or mine is a big part of what stopped me knowing about what goes on My son has now been in prison for a year with a year to go so I know a lot more than I did… and now he’s getting family visits he feels able to speak more openly about the more violent and challenging aspects Luckily he has not experienced too much of it himself but he has witnessed it.
    He is also lucky in having a very supportive network of family and friends to help him – something he says many others do it have or have lost over the course of their sentencing – several of his mates have been for a first home visit for over a year (due to lockdown ) only to be told the relationship is over -heartbreaking
    ‘I too appreciate the phrase incarcerated as punishment not incarcerated to be punished’ – my hope is that having been in lockdown for so long more of us will begin to realise just how much of a punishment incarceration is!

    • Thank you for sharing your story about your son, Kerri. You are so right that thinking prison will only happen to others is the reason many people don’t take an interest. I can imagine it has been a steep and emotional learning curve for you both and I wish you well going forward.

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