Tag Archives: punishment

Bad Girls – The Cathy Come Home of Women’s Prisons

I like this phrase, I’ve used it of Moll Flanders (The Cathy Come of the late Stuart England) and Black Beauty (The Cathy Come Home of Equine Welfare). 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.


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 an internet search for (without encountering X rated sites), 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 to many staff. Zandra is seen simply as a junkie and so any symptoms she has 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 keep 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, especially when intimate feelings are touched. 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 an 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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We Need to Talk about Kevin the Gerbil – and Tyrannosaur

Does anyone else want to read this book/film title in the sarcastic regional tones of 1980s pompous puppet, Roland Rat? I will add a sketch to remind or inform. This rugby shirted rodent presented British children’s TV along with Kevin the Gerbil et al. Roland and his insistently high-pitched companion would have brought welcome lightness to an intense story, which on page and screen is self important and humourless. Perhaps a comedy spoof in the making? You heard it here first.

I recall Lionel Shriver’s book as one of the most important I read that year; though truly I read it in one sitting into the small hours because I didn’t want the bombastic novel to take up another day of my life, and I skimmed heavily.

I wondered how a film could be made of such a heavily epistolary novel whose prose, like the family’s surname, runs to several syllables. Without the irritatingly grandiloquent writing style, the film feels like a vital part is lacking, especially as the film is near taciturn for much of the beginning. To translate the words into images doesn’t work and is unsatisfactory. I have always resisted the notion that film should privilege the visual over speech. Film has many tools – why use just one in a standardised way?

It seems that Lynne Ramsey has opted to adapt the novel in the style of The Tree Of Life crossed with Dogme. It’s all closeups of bits of ravaged faces and strange visual effects. She did the scrubbing the red paint off motif too often.

The film is alienating and boring. If I didn’t know the story, I would be lost – not only confused, but my attention and interest evaporated. I wished I were watching at home so that I could meander about, like so many cinema goers do, and didn’t care whether I missed bits of the film or not.

The book explores the why of Kevin’s actions – the film feebly says that he doesn’t know.  And the title isn’t appropriate in the film – there’s little talking and the dialogue about Kevin is all but a trickle compared to the voluminous verbiage penned by Madame Shriver.

The book drew me on the premise of what it would be to not love one’s child, not the rather obvious ‘nature or nurture’ that the film guides speak of. It feels that they’ve missed the point and the nuances of the story.

The other missing part is that the blurb of the book deliberately gave too much away. You knew what Kevin’s crime is – the shock is the missing facts. Being epistolary makes the reveal more surprising; but having no substitute for that device in the film loses the ‘killer twist’ (Picturehouses) its sting. The British Board of Film Classification once again forgot important details in their Extended Classification Information; it mentions sexual scenes and language, but nothing of the carnage of Kevin’s acts. Although brief, the last bodies might be quite upsetting. And I think it’s easier to guess whose they are in the film than in the book.

This is the second British gritty arts film I saw in a week (yes it is a US story, but Tilda and Lynne are both in Scotland and there’s BBC money in it). The other was Tyrannosaur, another of the kind of export we like to send round the European arts circuit, giving the impression that we of GB all live in mining towns on rough housing estates, killing ourselves and others, swearing every other word, and shooting up our arms in misery.

Paddy Considine must have a thing about evangelical Christians. He writes and acts very convincing prayers but can’t resist making the born agains hide some sexually abusive hypocrisy. He also gets his types of God Shopper confused – this one prays like a Pentecostal and yet has a sacred heart picture on the wall, which is very Catholic. It’s another outing for the weirdness of Eddie Marston, and is sometimes difficult viewing.

Both Kevin and Tyrannosaur deal with punishments for brutal murder. But while Kevin attacks innocent people (the film doesn’t ever speak of his targets and why they are chosen), Tyrannosaur’s ‘murderer’ is a monster (and no that doesn’t seem to be why the film is so called).  I am firmly opposed to capital punishment, but advocates would take the behaviour of Olivia/Hannah’s husband and say that prison is too good, why should he be kept at the tax payers expense, possibly to be let out and reoffend? His wife did us all a favour. And knowing the brutality inflicted on her, we can sympathise. I contrast this film with the Millennium trilogy, where a brutalised woman takes revenge and is never put in prison for it, and that – to my shock – we are meant to think ‘good for her’ for vilely raping the man back. His reputation is posthumously destroyed, but is seems that only if Hannah pays for her act that we can be sympathetic of it, not condoning. Joseph who has killed 2 dogs and possibly his large ‘Jurassic’ wife spends less time in prison than premeditated murderer Kevin, who hides under the guise of being a minor.

I go to the cinema to be challenged and inspired. I felt neither by the end of these films. The ‘lighter’ Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) once again gave something wise that I could relate to, on sense of place, idols and restlessness. I know which evening of the three I valued more.

There is a another recent release with an Eva in it from Scotland: where’s Perfect Sense? – its tiny theatrical exhibition is making none.

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I Love You Phillip Morris

The trailer and DVD packaging suggests a laughathon but this is misleading. Those wanting a lighthearted, feel good escape movie will be confronted by some heavy material, including heart break and terminal illness – dying is in the first scene. And those not wanting a silly buddy movie will be wrongly put off a true story which is touching and has some important issues.

It’s those issues that make me write.

The DVD extras make no mention of a campaign to release Steven Jay Russell, who has been in prison in solitary confinement for 13 years. His crime officially is for being a repeat offending con man and escapee. However, being in Texas and under Bush’s presidency, the film hints that the real reason for this severity might be his homosexuality.

Russell says ‘nobody gets hurt.’ In fictional con movie The Brothers Bloom, another Steven says ‘the best tricks are where everyone gets what they want’. The crimes committed are mostly impersonation. Although never trained as a lawyer, Steven Russell performed very well as one. He says in the film to the judge that he didn’t want to see his client – ‘a humble woman’ – roughbeaten by the slick serial litigator for the other side. The judge saw his point – and so do I.

Reading this week about the early King Henrys of England, it emerges that the power of law came from this era – something still in force in England and therefore arguably taken to America by settlers. Many of us internationally feel angry with finance and government at present. The other pillar, law – a ‘service’ many of us can’t afford – is in cahoots with other pillars to enforce a system that often isn’t just. Law should be about justice and protecting the innocent, but so often it’s an expensive form of bullying and is more concerned about property than right. That Steven used it for his own ends is what many people do anyway. He wanted to release his partner from prison – who had served on a minor offence, so he impersonated those who had the power release Phillip. He helped the ‘humble woman’ win her case.

But mostly Steven was motivated by love. It was often twisted into materialism where Steven believed money and gifts buy happiness and that obvious status symbols are our birthright and the signs of success. His partners – Phillip at least – didn’t need that life to believe Steven loved him or treated him well, and it ultimately led to over a decade of separation. Steven made money by putting large amounts of his company’s money in high interest accounts whilst it sat there between transactions. That to me that is acumen, not a crime. It didn’t seem to be hurting anyone – unlike the financial problems of now. He lived the life of investment bankers – and yet very few of those have suffered, especially not those at the top. Instead, their country has bailed them out with public money. Although Steven took a large cut from that fund, it was interest that wasn’t being made without his resourcefulness and the company benefitted as well as him. What would have been better was to have told the board rather than do it secretly – although one asks if the board would have let him keep any of it and if they alone would have benefitted from his idea instead. It seems the fierce punishments for fraud really relates to the value put on money and possession.

Another real life conman was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can. His reward was to be head hunted for a new career that utilised his gall, not punished for it. Why is Steven Russell so different? One wonders if what really upsets the establishment is not the innocent people are duped but that their precious professions are tainted by unqualified outsiders who can ape them and do just as well. It is not that I condone con artistry – and was shocked at his feigning AIDS – but that the punishment for Steven is far too high. He has not harmed anyone. The watershed at end of the film might have changed him, as he realises that that high lifestyle is not necessary and that being a conman hides from being his real self. Instead of being able to put that into practice, he has been locked away for all but one hour each day since 1998, separated from Phillip and the rest of the world.

 His sentence is a ridiculous 144 years – the number beloved of Jehovah’s witnesses and the book of Revelations – more than most serial killers and sexual abusers.

This is disproportionate punishment and is another misuse of public money as well as warped justice.

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