Paddy Wivell, director of documentary ‘Prison’, on what prison life is really like

Award-winning Paddy Wivell, director of the documentary Prison, shares his insights, observations and what he thinks are the biggest myths about life in prison.

Episode 3 of Prison, focused around ‘Violence’, has now aired on Channel 4, so Paddy reflects back on what it was like filming for 7 months at HMP Durham, where he and his team of 3 people captured the everyday life of prisoners and prison staff.

How did you start the process of filming the documentary?

HMP Durham is a big space, so initially we had a period of 3–4 weeks where we first focused on going around all the different wings, speaking to all the various officers and speaking to prisoners about our intentions for the series.

We built trust with them and reiterated the shared agenda we had, where we felt like the work of prison officers is misunderstood.

We deliberately didn’t want to bring a camera into the prison too early, and only introduced it once we felt there was a level of trust.

What was your motivation for filming a documentary inside a prison?

There hadn’t been a documentary team in an English prison for about 5 years, and in that time there were all sorts of headlines which were quite negative about what goes on inside our prisons, and it doesn’t give the public much sense of what prison officers do either.

We wanted to get a flavour of what life was actually like, gain a nuanced sense of what kind of work is being done within our prisons and what the experience of being in prison is like.

So we also had total creative control over the documentary — the Ministry of Justice or HMPPS weren’t involved with any of the filming or editing so we could get an accurate picture of prison life.

What was the biggest thing that surprised you whilst filming Prison?

The issue of mental health. I knew it was a problem, but it was only by being inside you really get a sense of how accute the problem is and how it affects so many inmates.

For example, there’s that moment in Episode 2 where we were walking around with a mental health nurse in Episode 2, and we found out from her that there are around 960 prisoners and at least 600 have mental health issues. That surprised us quite a lot, and the level of self-harm is quite shocking.

Additionally, I think in the public imagination of prison officers, the role of the prison officer hadn’t been updated that much since the Strangeways era, you know? The role has changed so significantly.

Prison officers are being asked to do so many different tasks and have to be so skilled in dealing with some very challenging people. It’s an incredibly challenging job and I didn’t appreciate that before I went in.

Can you explain more about what you thought of the prison staff, and the job that they do?

I just think they’re heroic. I think they are heroic people and are underappreciated.

The number of people who’ve said to me that they’re the “forgotten service” speaks for itself — their work hasn’t been documented, recorded or celebrated like how our doctors and nurses and police are. They are the most extraordinary public servants and they don’t get the credit or recognition that they deserve and I think that’s a real pity.

They’re doing an incredible job that’s often quite a thankless task. Take prison officer John for example. There’s a moment in Episode 3 where he gets attacked. When we filmed that, we felt for John but I knew we got something quite important — capturing the very real physical danger that they have to encounter daily.

Prison officer John Matthews. Photo credit courtesy of Spring Films and Channel 4 Television

But John’s said himself that this incident is the rarity and not the norm, and that’s because he has such emotional intelligence. He’s able to preempt difficulties before they arrive.

And I think a lot of people don’t appreciate that on the outside — there are all these statistics on violence, but they don’t witness how much violence is averted thanks to the skills of prison officers, who anticipate and dissipate problems and conflicts, and do so much to diffuse those situations. Not enough attention is celebrated or paid attention to those moments to real problems.

In the mental health episode there’s a death in custody — and I think quite often people make negative conclusions. But what they don’t see is the level of work involved to avert those deaths by prison staff. They don’t see the care taken to try and prevent that from happening, nor do they see the impact it has on staff emotionally when it does take place.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story. They’re just the tip of the iceberg — and prison officers are preventing those statistics from being much higher.

How did it feel witnessing the moment prisoner Troi wants to turn his life around in Episode 3?

It’s an amazing moment! I have to say, that completely floored us. I did not anticipate that happening.

To be honest, when we saw him coming in we knew he was a troubled prisoner — we expected violence and carnage, and we were interested in following that to see how the prison would respond. What I didn’t expect was for him to go to a couple of classes and be so affected.

It just proves to you what is possible, and there’s something incredibly hopeful in that moment seeing that, with the right care, questioning and reflection, change is possible.

But it’s a very complicated situation of course, because you can see the security move had a huge impact on him but by the end of the film he was anxious about leaving because he knew implicitly about the sort of challenges he’d face in the community and the world he was returning to. So you can reinvent yourself in a prison setting — but it’s much harder to make that work on the outside.

So when you’re thinking about rehabilitation, you need to be realistic about it and address the difficulties people face in society too.

Now that you’ve had experience filming in a prison for 6–7 months, what do you think is the biggest misconception about prisons?

That they’re holiday camps! And that because they have a TV and a phone, somehow thinking prisoners live the life of luxury.

When you see the deprivation of freedom you have when you get there, you see how limiting their lives are because their freedom’s been taken away, you realise they aren’t holiday camps.

I also think people misconceive the idea that it’s quite straightforward to stop drugs from getting in. It’s actually quite an impossible task, given the limited powers that officers have in retrieving them, it’s difficult to be able to spot it all.

I think this harks back to the public imagination that dates back to times of Porridge. I think that when prison officers go home to their friends and family they don’t quite appreciate the task they have to do. They’re a misunderstood public servant.

All 3 episodes are now out, what would you say is the overarching narrative of Prison?

It’s essentially taking those headlines about the supposed ‘crisis of prisons’, looking at the themes of each episode (Drugs, Mental Health, and Violence) in a more nuanced way, and not just statistics thrown at us to demonstrate how the service is failing.

I really wanted to give the viewer the sense of what it actually feels like to be in prison, to get an impression of what it’s like to be a prisoner on those landings, that you don’t readily get elsewhere. I felt quite often films of the past only really show things from a prison officer’s point of view and I wanted to be immersed in the world of the inmate too.

We wanted to humanise those headlines and really understand what they mean to gain a more informed understanding of the challenges prisons face.

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