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Jimmy McGovern’s latest offers an accurate picture of a prison system that benefits no one, argues Lisa Connor

Jimmy McGovern is nothing but consistent in his depiction of ordinary people and their extraordinary lives, often providing insights into a world that is familiar to most of us but remarkable in terms of the situations in which people can find themselves. Crime, punishment and justice are recurrent themes that run throughout his work, notably in Hillsborough (1996), The Accused (2010 -2012) and Common (2014). 

It is the brutal reality of prison life which he returns to in the BBC Drama Time (2021). This three-part series focuses on Mark, played by Sean Bean, who is a middle-aged first timer commencing a four-year stretch for killing a man as a result of drink driving. There is a parallel narrative involving Stephen Graham’s prison officer, Eric, who is placed in an impossible situation motivated by his devotion to his son, locked up in another prison.

Both actors have previously worked with McGovern and can be seen as safe pairs of hands, their respective performances laying bare their vulnerabilities as they have to ensure their survival on the wings of the fictional establishment, filmed at the now decommissioned HMP Shrewsbury.

For context, in the week ending 18 June 2021, the UK male prison population stood at 78,172. It is thirty years since the publication of the Woolf Report (1991), which arose as a result of widespread rioting over the lack of justice and fairness in the UK’s penal system. It is two decades since privatisation further eroded public sector provision with 14 of 117 prisons in England and Wales now being run for profit.

In Time we see the harsh reality of prison life: indeed, many staff and inmates who have been around since the 1990s would struggle to identify any significant progressive changes since prisoners took to the wings and roofs of jails in defiance back then. The practice of ‘slopping out’ may now be a thing of the past but what McGovern manages to show is that prison stifles humanity, engenders mistrust and creates little opportunity for hope for those motivated to return to society ‘rehabilitated’.

When sentenced, a prisoner has to hit the ground running and like a chameleon, adapt to that environment and ascertain their position in a pecking order. Like Eric, staff are not immune to the pressures of spreading themselves thinly and bribery and corruption are not just in the realm of a drama but a regular occurrence. Time presents this in a realistic manner without resource to cliché. There is no such thing as an inherently bad man but place him in a cage and treat him like an animal, then you’re likely either to see his teeth or his soul wither away in a fog of Spice.

Many prison dramas often misrepresent the reality of being a convicted prisoner but what Time does so sharply is depict what to many prison staff will feel like an accurate peek through the bars. Ordinary people go to prison. Bean excels in portraying a broken man attempting to hide his vulnerabilities whilst trying to overcome his overwhelming sense of shame and guilt. Rather than a simplistic depiction of the hostile abusive prison officer, we see that there are good staff trying to do a good job in an environment absent of real resources, particularly when trying to address the sheer volume of mental health issues having to be managed.

Despite what appears to be the unrelenting horror Mark has to navigate, it is the nuances of McGovern’s writing that also uncover those glimmers of light. There is kindness and fraternity. There is hope; though you’re lucky if the system doesn’t snatch this away from you should you find yourself at Her Majesty’s pleasure. At its heart are questions about justice, forgiveness and reconciliation that demand that we ask what we want the prison system to do.

Evidently, the Blairite mantra “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” still informs policy. A prison system reflects the values of the state, with any progressive changes often met with the accusation that ‘we’ are ‘going soft’ on crime. The UK prison population continues to grow, with the most recent figures telling a tale of a country that locks up 138 per 100,000 of its inhabitants. In this context, Time offers us the opportunity to explore ideas that challenge our notion of what justice should and could be.

Time is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

Lisa Connor has worked in the Criminal Justice system for 24 years

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