A month or so back, on Sunday nights, the BBC aired episodes of Jimmy McGovern’s “Time“, a drama about the prison system. It was the best television I’ve seen in years and I ended up watching all three episodes, as if it were a film. I’ve since re-watched it all and I hope it goes on to win recognition for its writing, acting and representation of the prison system. Former prisoners and prison officers alike have commented that it’s the best representation of the reality of prison they’ve ever known.
Seen from mostly from the dual perspective of an English teacher (Mark, played by Sean Bean) convicted of causing death by dangerous driving whilst drunk and a senior prison officer, it took only a matter of minutes for the issue of mental health to be front and centre. It was impactive and graphic, almost distressing. Actor Stephen Graham (who plays prison officer Mr McNally) said in publicity ahead of the broadcast that he wanted his work to be uncomfortable to watch and it certainly was.
Spoiler alert! – please don’t read on if you’ve not watched it and want to avoid a give-away from the plot! … but this lies at the heart of the point I want to make in this post. Don’t read further, if you still intend to watch this (see link, above).
One prisoner with serious mental health issues self-injures in episode one and that in itself is a striking and upsetting scene. Like much of the more distressing material, it’s not graphic – it’s filmed more subtely, but you’re left in no doubt what’s happened and it is upsetting.
Bernard is then segregated within the prison so staff can keep him under closer observation whilst he’s at raised risk. He subsequently dies by suicide after it emerges that he’d stock-piled medication until he had enough for an overdose. Within episode two, Bernard’s mother confronts Mr McNally to say that segregation pushed him to suicide and she’s obviously bereft with upset and distress. This drama is touching precisely on some of the considerations which have featured in real inquests in recent times —
In response to her heartfelt and upsetting protest, Mr McNally said something that nailed me. It absolutely nailed me. It wasn’t just what he said, but how he said it, with an understanding that was laced with frustration and futility —
“Bernard was harming himself, we had to keep an eye on him. There was nowhere else for him. You’d say he should have been in that hospital and I agree with you Mrs Hughes, but that goes for half the men in this place … they should all be in mental hospitals, not in this nick. But there’s no room for them, so they stay here and we do the best we can – honestly, we do the very best that we can for them. And often that’s not good enough.
I’m really sorry for your loss, your Bernard was a good lad … shouldn’t have been here.”
The words of a man who knew he was trying his best whilst knowing that would never be good enough, and knowing he had no choice but to try. I don’t mind saying: this absolutely nailed me and I immediately paused the episode, and re-run this speech to write it down.
It’s one of the biggest decisions going … whether someone who has offended whilst mentally ill should be imprisoned or hospitalised if it must be one of the two. This debate featured in a recent blog about a real case and might be worth reflecting on in light of this drama. We know that what we offer is not always good enough – and I feel for frontline staff who wrestle with the ethical aspects of that, as I do.
Winner of the President’s Medal, the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award
All opinions expressed are my own – they do not represent the views of any organisation. (c) Michael Brown OBE, 2021
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Government legislation website – www.legislation.gov.uk