Panorama: Behind Bars: Prison Undercover

By Dr Michael Naughton, Reader in Sociology and Law (University of Bristol Law School).

The BBC Panorama programme, Behind Bars: Prison Undercover, aired on Monday 13 February 2017. Culled from footage from an undercover reporter in HMP Northumberland, it claimed to “reveal the reality of life behind bars in Britain’s crisis-hit prison system.”

Leaving aside the obvious methodological issues with such a claim, i.e. that such a generalisation cannot be made from a few insights in a single, adult, male, category C, private prison, what we got, instead, was an entirely biased, one-sided view. On this occasion, it was the fears of clearly overworked and overwhelmed prison staff that was the central focus of concern. The narrative depicted was simplistic: prisoners are both out of control and in control of the day to day running of prisons, supported by images of drug taking, drunken and abusive prisoners. A strong case was being made for more prison officers, which is totally justified in the context of overcrowded prisons and savage cuts to prison staff.

A major problem was that this was at the expense of a more balanced programme that took account, also, of the prisoner side of the story – the desolation, monotony and periods of sheer terror of everyday life behind prison bars. This is well documented in the research and it might, also, go some way, at least, to contextualising and/or explaining the images of the relatively small handful of misbehaving prisoners that were selected to persuade viewers to accept the underpinning narrative without question.

Indeed, this was a missed opportunity to present a more honest and socially responsible account of the current challenges confronting imprisonment so that the problems might be better addressed. Yes, there are profound and potentially even dangerous levels of staff shortages in prisons, with a knock-on effect of low morale amongst demoralised staff: more staff are urgently needed. Just as importantly, the existing regime is experiencing regular prison disturbances and riots amid record levels of prisoner self-harm and suicide amongst vulnerable prisoners, which, equally, needs urgent attention.

Advocates for progressive prison reform along lines of social justice might easily see through the bias of the programme and be able to make sense of the behaviour of the prisoners that was featured. David Scott’s analysis, for instance, situates the evident prison chaos and the enormous demand for drugs as an attempt by prisoners to “anaesthetise the pain” of imprisonment: “It is well documented that prison life is both highly regulated yet filled with emptiness. Drugs distort time and prisons are all about the wasting and loss of time. Many prisoners attempt to suspend time and find ways to manage life on the edge of this meaningless and dehumanising penal abyss.”

I fear, however, that the “moral majority”, lacking the intellectual sophistication and/or ability for empathy to make such connections, will lap the programme up in the way intended and wouldn’t be surprised if attitudes hardened further towards prisoners and conditions get even worse, if that is even possible to conceive.

Was it a mere coincidence that the programme was aired on the day that Ms Truss, Secretary of State for Justice, rejected calls to cut sentences to reduce the record prison population to address the current prison crisis by making more use of such things as community sentences and tagging?

Emphasising the “increasing volatility and violence” in prisons in England and Wales, a discourse strengthened by the Panorama programme, Mr Truss argued on the contrary that criminals are where they “belong” “behind bars” with longer sentences.

In this context, I think that it is likely that Behind Bars: Prison Undercover will serve to deflect opposition from, even garner support for, Ms Truss’s line of thinking and that prisoner numbers may continue to increase and the problems in our prisons may well deepen.

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