Bad Girls The Cathy Come Home of Women’s prisons

I like this phrase, I’ve used it of Moll Flanders and Black Beauty. Cathy Come Home was a shocking 1960s television piece directed by Ken Loach which stirred up Britain’s social conscience, using fiction to demonstrate real life abuses and problems. The ITV drama Bad Girls, aired in its natal Britain from 1999-2009, still has fans globally and has become a cult show. Through the camp entertainment, it held up some important mirrors. I’ll write several posts about characters and writing later, but I want to focus on those mirrors here.

PLOT SPOILER ALERT

Monica’s final speech is the belief of the show’s creators, Shed productions: that prison only makes a bad situation worse. I think that could be put more eloquently; erudite, articulate Monica was a character who could have done so.

It’s unfortunate the original name for the show was taken, so Jailbirds became Bad Girls. As well as sounding cheap and crude and making it harder to do a search for, Bad Girls suggests that these convicts are bad, as well as using the juvenile term for female humans. Surely a better title could’ve been conjured which does not connote against the show’s ethos, for Bad Girls implies that those serving in South London’s fictional Larkhall prison are debauched. Prisoner Cell Block H (refilmed as Wentworth) and Within These Walls and Orange is the New Black all managed to find show names that did not denigrate the inmates they wish to sympathetically portray, so surely the minds that came up with some incredulous plots could have generated better for the inmates of G Wing.

Bad Girls’ consultant was an ex professional thief who set up a women’s prison charity. I was upset to think that around the world (especially in Canada) there is the Elizabeth Gurney Fry movement, and yet in the country that the reformer lived in, we have no such society. As someone who’s lived in Elizabeth’s natal city and sat on the benches she did at Goat’s Lane Quakers’, I was very disappointed in the apparent lack of local campaigning that most convicted women shouldn’t be in prison. Britain does have such an organisation, Women in Prison, whom Bad Girls supports. (I’m now thinking that much of prisons’ problems stem back to Elizabeth Fry and I’m no longer sure that I admire her… another article).

That the founder, who shares a name with a great composer, stole for the hell of it rather undermines her message. Bad Girls attempts to show that many of the inmates are there due to defence or provision for themselves or loved ones – in fact, any character I can think of in the first three series (which I will focus on) can, even obliquely, come into that category. The Julies ‘knobbed and robbed’ as a team to support themselves and their children when their marriages broke down; Nikki Wade stopped her girlfriend being raped by a policeman; even gangsters Yvonne and Renee were taking care of their own; Denny is an abused young woman who was in some sense defending herself and the injustice of being moved on from the one children’s home she was happy in; Shaz was bullied at work and feared the abuse of her stepdad if she was sacked; Denny’s mum was on the bottle because she too had been abused; Crystal stole out of desperation after burying her mum in the West Indies and returning to find her home and job gone; Barbara committed euthanasia to release her husband from the suffering of his illness; Monica was one of those carrying the can for the crimes of love of her life, as were Rachel Hicks and Zandra. Michelle Dockley would argue that the unspeakable act she did to another woman she was defending her love: I think it is untrue, but she too has been horrifically abused.

The show shows how prison splits up families and friends on the inside and the out (eg the Julies and Monica from their children, Nikki from Trish, Zandra from fiancé and baby). Sometimes those relationships are destroyed altogether; sometimes it leads to loss of life (Monica’s Spencer and Rachel Hicks; one could argue, Zandra too.)

Warm friendships are formed between unlikely people in prison but the splitting up punishment is used as a way of control (Shaz and Denny). Lesbianism is against the rules, so that connections, happiness and physical fulfilment are to be denied in a place that leads so many to despair. Barbara Hunt said she and Nikki would be sharing not so much cells, but private hells; and prison brought Rachel, Monica, Rachel, Charlotte Middleton, Julie J and Michelle to attempt suicide.

Not only are these people excluded from society, they are told when to rise, eat, wash, go to bed. Their property is taken away and the little they are allowed with them can be rifled through at any time. You can be divested of clothes – by force if necessary – not just in your induction (what a welcome) but if the drugs team wishes or anytime you are sent to the segregation block. Staff don’t even have to shut the door or look away.

Prisoner’s health is not of concern. Zandra is simply a junkie and so any symptoms are deserved. I was angry that the results of her tests were hidden from her – as an adult, it’s her right to know she has a tumour, not something for her wing governor to hide from her. Her treatment doesn’t seem negotiable and she (like many outside) are wheeled off to hospital and to operations or stuffed with drugs without gaining permission or explanation. When Shell breaks down in series 2, she’s dosed up in the hospital block – is that really what she needed? Doesn’t seem to help: she’s soon back on G wing bullying, but has she really had closure on her abusive past? Pam and Tess are also confined to the “Muppet” psychiatric wing and the ministrations patronising, drug dealing Dr Thomas, supposedly a goodie.

I’m continually struck by how regressive prisons are. Grown women, often called girls, are treated like they are at school: being put on report, sent to the head, living by bells, calling officers ‘sir’ and ‘miss’ (how uneven those terms are between the genders – Sir being what you call the king or a knight, Miss sounding pejorative). You have to ask for permission to do anything and can’t leave the gates without special application whilst in the institutions’ care.

I also note how people behave unpleasantly whilst in prison and are not really themselves. The actress who plays Nikki – Mandana Jones – says she puts on a London tone to sound tough when dealing with bullies, and makes physical and verbal threats. Many women find themselves fighting or using violence as a means of protection who would never do so on the outside (even Monica and Barbara). Worse than in school, there’s the unwritten rule that one never complains or tells, so that you cannot get justice the right way. Ands then you are punished if you take justice into your own hands by fighting bullies back. Bullies steal goodies – sweeties of a different kind – and despite their outside market value, class A drugs are swapped for phone cards; but then the price of communicating with the outside world probably is priceless.

Like being on benefits, the government decides what money you get each week and can take it away if they deem that you don’t deserve it. There’s a tuck shop hatch, like a jobcentre screen, through which you receive what you’re allowed via the rules and whims of the government employee on the other side.

The staff too behave regressively. Senior staff treat their minions like naughty school children – both Helen and Karen slipped into this mode when they governed. And Helen especially used it as defence when a nerve was touched, pulling rank against Nikki whenever an argument goes the wrong way. It cannot be healthy for the development of either senior or officer grade staff. It’s another reason that I don’t support the army for having this hierarchical, unquestionable system of obedience through fear and punishment.

Punishment is something I am questioning too, not just in prison. I presented a piece I’d written in an alternative church service about why the Christian faith as well as society is based on a If… then threat system to keep others doing what you want. Why do we need punishment? Although legally considered offences, are most of what these women have done actually, really crimes in the wider moral sense? When you can get sent to prison for not paying council tax, for having your event’s noise levels too high, or for letting your punters drink outside on the street, it’s clear that prison isn’t about keeping us safe from dangerous people. And when those convicted of fraud (perhaps wrongly) or who even are recovering from alcoholism squat over the same bug ridden open loo as a torturer and assassin….! And so people inside are more at risk from people they either avoid on the outside,  or because they are reunited with problems (such as Renee and Yvonne, rival gangsters;  Zandra is decrutched by Denny, and Karen is threatened with a syringe of HIV infected blood,  both for grudges from a previous incarceration).

Prison augments and creates issues, it does not remedy; it’s just an expensive way to pretend that they are dealt with and decapacitated. It’s not about justice, but a place of forgetting (an oubliette) by everyone but their jailors.

Bad Girls rightly wanted these women visualised and vocalised.

More on characters, storylines, links to my fan fiction and thoughts on drugs all coming soon

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