Saturday, 12 December 2015

Prison Night (Channel 4)

This evening (Saturday 7th November 2015) saw the broadcast of Channel 4‘s list programme, Prison Night, with a countdown of ten prison films, as voted for by convicts who are currently serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Former British convicts and others involved in the prison service, discuss the authenticity of big-screen depictions of life behind bars. They describe how realistically they believe the film versions of events compare to their own experiences.
The following are the results of Channel 4 asking British prisoners to choose their favourite prison films. The list begins at number ten, with number one being the most popular:

10. Midnight Express (US 1978) tells the story of Billy Hayes, aged 23, who was arrested at a Turkish airport on 7th October 1970, whilst on his fourth drug run with 2 kilograms of marijuana. Hayes was sentenced to four years in prison, but with 54 days remaining his sentence was extended to life, so he had to consider escape. The film premiered at Cannes in 1978, with Brad Davis in the lead role. Hayes tells how Midnight Express was released to critical acclaim, except in Turkey where it damaged the tourism industry (due to Oliver Stone‘s scripted speech, not the one Hayes actually gave).

09. Stir Crazy (US 1980), with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, lampoons the ‘get tough’ attitude necessary in order to survive American prisons. Shaun Attwood from Widnes, Cheshire, was given a potential 200 year sentence, later reduced to nine years, in Florence, Arizona, after dealing in ecstasy. He was released after six years and says he agrees with the presentation of American prisons in the film.

08. Scum (GB 1979). 21-year-old Ray Winston is young criminal Carlin, sentenced to Borstal. In order to survive, Carlin needs to learn to give as good as he gets. It is similar to Noel Smith’s experience of a 3-year detention at Rochester, and he therefore agrees with the beatings and bullying from officers. Gerry Henry, a former prison governor, says officers expected total control over prisoners. Scum shocked the public in revealing what went on behind the Borstal walls. Smith agrees with the portrayal of extreme violence, such as prisoners making a cosh from snooker balls. Borstals were abolished two years after the film was released, in 1982.

Prison Night has a side feature on Porridge, a comedy series of the 1970s, which became a hit by tapping into the dark humour of prison life. Former prisoner, Dean Stalham, a serial fraudster, agreed that Porridge gave a true insight into a prison like Pentonville. Fletch, played by Ronnie Barker, demonstrates that you cannot beat the system, but it is possible to push it as far as possible to retain your humanity.

07. The Great Escape (US 1963) is loosely based on the story of Stalag Luft III, a supposedly escape-proof prison for allied POWS during World War II. Prisoners dug three tunnels, Tom, Dick and Harry, and stole 1,500 tin cans and 4,000 bed boards in order to shift 200 tonnes of soil, undetected. They made candles from the fat in soup and sewed costumes using uniforms. According to 98-year-old Jack Lyon, the last surviving prisoner, the major error in the film is that not one American took part in the escape. Tunnel Harry took a year to build, from the centre of the camp to the periphery, but came up short. 76 prisoners got out before the tunnel was discovered. Another error in the film is that the escape took place in sub-zero temperatures, with one foot of snow. Steve McQueen‘s motorcycle chase, including a 60ft jump over barbed wire by a stuntman, did not happen. Jack was caught in the escape hut and sentenced to 28 days solitary confinement, which he did not serve because the waiting list was too long. 73 prisoners were recaptured and 50 shot on Hitler’s orders.

06. Escape from Alcatraz (US 1979) tells the true story of prisoner Frank Morris, played by Clint Eastwood. The threatening atmosphere of the prison, situated on a rocky outcrop in California, is created in the early stages of the film. Danger Man star Patrick McGoohan also gives a sinister performance as the warden. In 1962, Morris spent months chipping away, with a spoon, at the plaster around the grill in his cell. He made a papier-mâché ‘head’, with hair from the barber’s, and put the dummy head on his pillow to fool the guards. Morris, along with the Anglin brothers, climbed from their grills to the roof and physically escaped, but no-one knows what happened to them. The US authorities claimed they drowned, but Michael Dyke, the Deputy U.S. Marshal, conceded the escapees may have survived. Morris’s Family said he reached California, and a relative of the Anglins believes they escaped to Brazil.

In a second side feature, women prisoners are a minority, but there have been three major series based on their experiences: Prisoner: Cell Block H, an Aussie soap which ran for 700 episodes; Orange is the New Black, a comedy drama rich in stereotypes; and British prison drama, Bad Girls. MoD strategist Bettina Jordan-Barber leaked security secrets to the Sun newspaper and was sentenced to time at Holloway Women’s Prison. She says there were relationships between warders and inmates, and inmates go ‘gay for the stay’. When those inmates, having relationships with warders, were spirited away, it was known as a ‘ghost-out’.

05. Cool Hand Luke (US 1967) is about a 1940s Florida regime intent on brutalising the inmates of a prison, with Paul Newman starring as Luke. Joseph Arpaio, Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, brought back chain gangs, after they were abolished, and justifies the system as one of Channel 4’s talking heads. 150 inmates have died in his prisons. They are fed slops, wear pink underwear and sleep in cold tents. Luke escapes to be recaptured, but retains his humanity. Dean Stalham says Britain is about prisoning the mind, but the US imprison the body.

04. In Bronson (GB 2008), Tom Hardy portrays the prisoner intent on gaining celebrity status by battering the authorities at Belmarsh. Bronson was sentenced to seven years for armed robbery, but his attacks on officers led to many more years of solitary confinement. He was kept in the Hannibal Cage at Wakefield Prison, which strengthened his determination to fight the system. Bronson had 12 men assigned to control him, when they opened the prison door, and they often failed. In 1978, Bronson was sent to Broadmoor. 6 years later, he was certified insane, but returned to general prison. In 1993, he took a hostage and demanded an inflatable doll and a helicopter. He serves as an example of how the system can make prisoners worse.

In The Italian Job (GB 1969), Noel Coward plays Mr Bridger, a Mafia boss who remained in power behind bars (the third side feature). Similarly, in Porridge (1974-1977), Peter Vaughan appears as Harry Grout, who ran an empire from his prison cell without repercussions. Dean Stalham confirms the authenticity of these people. But, whereas Martin Scorsese‘s gangster film Goodfellas (US 1990), showed the fine dining in US prisons, in the UK, this was restricted to tinned tuna.

03. Dead Man Walking (US 1995) stars Sean Penn as death row prisoner, Matthew Poncelet, with Susan Sarandon as his spiritual advisor. She won an Oscar for the role of real life character, Sister Helen Prejean, who campaigned against the death sentence in the US. In the film, Prejean succeeds in getting Penn’s character to confess his guilt. The real Helen Prejean is interviewed and Professor David Dow, a lawyer, describes witnessing the death sentence being carried out. Texas executes the largest number of prisoners in the United States.

02. The Green Mile (US 1999) is a fantasy drama set in the Cold Mountain Penitentiary, in which Tom Hanks plays a prison guard who ensures an inmate is executed with dignity. America is the only country in the world to use the electric chair for executing prisoners. Since 1890, 4,000 people have been executed. Fred Leuchter improved the design of electric chairs, in order to execute people more efficiently, but they can go badly wrong. The film accurately portrays the horrifying execution of Jesse Tafero, wrongly found guilty of murdering police officers in 1976. After the execution, Walter Rhodes confessed to the murders. Tafero’s partner, Sunny Jacobs, who speaks to the programme makers, was also sentenced to death in the electric chair for a crime she did not commit. She spent five years on death row, before the sentence was commuted. Thirteen people have been found to be innocent, after they were executed.

01. The Shawshank Redemption (US 1994). A tale of triumph over adversity, which received raving reviews from Channel 4’s voting prisoners. The film focuses on the relationship between two lifers: Andy, played by Tim Robbins and Red, played by Morgan Freeman. It cleverly tells the tale of Andy, through the eyes of Red. Andy is a fighter who treats his fellow inmates to opera and, during a mealtime, he beckons his friends to keep faith in the future. The twist is that Andy inexplicably vanishes from the prison. Prison Night draws parallels with the case of Ashanti Witherspoon, interviewed for the programme, who was sentenced to 75 years in prison at 25-years-old. On 17th January 1972, he was involved in an armed robbery shootout, in which two police officers were shot. Witherspoon was also shot in the head, resulting in the roof of his mouth now being covered with a plastic plate. After twenty years, the parole board denied him release, as two policemen were shot. Three further requests were turned down over the next few years. In this respect, there was a similarity between Red in Shawshank and Witherspoon. In 1999, Witherspoon faced the parole board again; his daughter had only known him as a prisoner. He was paroled and later said his life is proof that rehabilitation does work, but the problems are not over. The Hollywood ending of The Shawshank Redemption puts an emphasis on maintaining hope.

Prison Night is narrated by Julian Barratt and was written and directed by Rob Davis


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