Ross Kemp Behind Bars: Hiding from the hard questions in Barlinnie

Last week we saw actor and documentary maker Ross Kemp spend time in Glasgow’s Barlinnie prison, in an attempt to address a question which has long troubled academics, policy makers, and those sentenced to custody: what are prisons for?

That Kemp and his documentary team selected Barlinnie to explore this question seems very much to have been a deliberate choice, taken to capture the viewer’s attention through multiple references to Barlinnie’s “dark history” and “stone walls”.   However, while Barlinnie’s age, scale, and history may make for a striking setting for a television documentary, they are somewhat atypical of modern prisons in Scotland.  As a recent inspection report of Barlinnie notes, while the vast majority of men in Barlinnie are accommodated traditional, “imposing” Victorian halls, this reflects Barlinnie’s place as one of Scotland’s oldest and largest prisons.

This focus on traditional, or even clichéd, symbols and stories of prison life persist throughout the hour that we spend with Kemp in Barlinnie.  The only workplace we see within the prison is the kitchen, where the emphasis is placed on the need to manage any risk of violence rather than the work being done.  Kemp suggests that “potential weapons” abound in the prison kitchen, noting the potential harm that can be caused by knives, boiling water, and even soup.  The residential hall where we spend the most time is E Hall, where men who require protection from the remainder of the prison population due to the nature of their offence, serve their sentence.

We also explore the prison exercise yard, where interviewees attest to the dangerous nature of the prison environment, before being shown an array of weapons and mobile phones which have been confiscated by officers.  This then seems to serve as justification for showing viewers a detailed cell-search, including a strip-search of the individual under suspicion.  While his identity is concealed, there is no reflection on the invasive nature of broadcasting this element of the prison regime for public consumption, nor any consideration of how this person might feel as a consequence.  The only glimpse we see of the individual as a person, rather than a faceless prisoner, is when the officer thoroughly searches a pile of immaculately kept letters, presumably from his family.

There are intriguing moments where some of the more complex issues facing those living and working in prisons are alluded to.  For instance, the difficulties of sentence progression for those serving indeterminate sentences are highlighted in the account of one man who remains in Barlinnie six years past the “punishment part” of his sentence, as a consequence of a heroin addiction he developed to cope with the prison environment.  When Kemp asks if he has been rehabilitated, he responds that he is not sure if it is growing older or rehabilitative programs that have led him to change, but in any case this doesn’t matter while it is his addiction, rather than his offending which is keeping him in custody.  This raises questions relating not only to the progression process for life sentences, but also whether addictions can or should be addressed within the criminal justice system.

The prison officers interviewed by Kemp also provide a more sophisticated account of life in Barlinnie.  From the officer working with protection prisoners who emphasises the need to see the whole person and not just their offence, to the officer running the gym who highlights the critical importance of relationships in creating a well-run prison, these officers provide insights which would have made a more challenging and engaging documentary than the continuing emphasis placed on violence and offending by Kemp and his team.  However, it is not only their accounts which are neglected.  We also do not see the library, the education centre, the prison radio station, the visiting room or any other space which might allow for a more rounded view of the lives of the men serving their sentences in Barlinnie.

These choices of the production team to limit what the audience see of Barlinnie are important.  Sociologists who study prisons frequently highlight that these are places where individuals are denied full adulthood, in that they are not trusted to choose when to go to bed, what to eat, what to wear, when to use the phone, where they would like to work or what possessions they may have.  The limited view of Barlinnie presented by Kemp reflects this process of infantalisation, but here it is not the prisoners who are not afforded full trust or maturity, rather it is the audience themselves.  This emphasis this documentary places on common tropes of imprisonment, such as drugs, violence, beasts, “banking”, fear, and cell-searches undermines attempts to meaningfully interrogate questions such as “what are prisons for” and “do they work”.

Kemp concludes the hour by posing what is perhaps the most interesting question documentary: are we as a society doing everything we can to support those who want to change their lives?  This inevitably requires acknowledging our shared humanity and recognising the whole person, not simply seeing them as a “prisoner” or an “offender”.  This documentary may have set out to ask hard questions about our prisons, but by not trusting the audience to understand the complex nature of both the prison and lives of those within it, it instead presents a simple narrative which is unlikely to open up a constructive debate around these questions.