You made a three part series about HMP Durham. The first two parts were on over the summer. Why the delay for this one?
We were waiting for an outstanding court case to finish. The person involved in that was the main contributor in the third episode, so we’d potentially be in contempt of court if we put it out before the end of his trial.
Why did you want to make this series, and why now?
I’ve always wanted to make a series in prison, and this was the first time an opportunity had come up. It’s a particularly important moment to be able to get access to prison, because no camera’s been allowed in to make a documentary film in five years, and in that time, we’ve seen almost daily reports coming out of prisons of the crisis that’s going on within them. I think, for that reason, it’s a particularly important series, because it tackles the crisis that’s affecting prisons up-and-down the country, specifically to do with drugs and mental health and violence, which are the themes to our three episodes. It feels quite timely, I think.
Was it difficult to get access? What kind of assurances did you have to give?
Do you know what, it was remarkably straightforward. I came in at the stage where Spring Films had already spoken in depth to an Executive Governor up in the northeast, and he invited me to come and spend a bit of time in one or two of the prisons in the region. Durham was the second one I went to, and I knew instantly that was the place I wanted to make the films. That was partly because of the building itself – it’s an old Victorian prison, and it really feeds into the public perception of what prison’s like. It had a charisma all of its own. But more importantly, I got on really well with the governor. He’d been there for ten years, and was really well thought of, and felt that it was a good idea for us to come in. His sense was that they were getting the worst headlines they could possibly imagine, and that actually his staff were doing an amazing job in the most difficult circumstances. I think we just got on really well, and I was quite transparent in my thinking. We had meetings weekly, and I talked about how the series was shaping up, and he just afforded me a huge level of trust. So the management access went really well, but then I had to spend quite a lot of time on the shop floor, on the wings, trying to convince the prison officers that we weren’t there to stitch them up. We had a shared agenda, showing what a remarkable job they do in the most trying circumstances. I kept trying to remind people that in the public consciousness, the idea of what they do hasn’t really been updated in a long time. In fact they do a very different job to the one a lot of the public think that they do. They don’t rule with an iron fist. They have to be much more empathetic and subtle and nuanced and thoughtful in the way they go about their work.
It strikes me, from watching the programme, that you have a lot of respect for the staff and the job they do.
Yeah, I was blown away, actually, by what they have to put up with. Particularly in a prison like Durham, which is a remand prison. So they get a huge turnover, a massive traffic of people coming in and out of the prison all the time. They’re in that prison straight from the police cells right up until they get tried. So they’re dealing with people who are very often in a state of crisis. It can be a very volatile atmosphere. They do an extraordinary job, given how challenging it is. What I wasn’t prepared for was the shocking level of violence and the epidemic of mental illness that’s going on in our prison. Quite often, places like HMP Durham are where our most vulnerable citizens end up, given the cuts to community care. It becomes one of the only places that can really take care of people, and central to that are the prison staff.
You seemed to get a remarkable amount of candour from prisoners. How did you go about winning their trust?
I think a lot of them were quite welcoming of a different voice coming in. We’re sort of independent from the staff, and a lot of the prisoners are quite bored. Their lives are incredibly routine in there, and I think it was interesting for them. A lot of them didn’t want to take part, for understandable reasons, but quite a lot did. I think it’s partly because, wherever I go, I’m tapping into people’s expertise, and it’s no different with inmates. They know something that I don’t, and I really want them to tell me about it, and I think that kind of attention can be quite enjoyable. Plus, I don’t go in there with a set agenda or a set of judgements. I go in there to win the trust of people so they can give me an insight into a life I don’t really understand. And I think they quite enjoyed a chat. Particularly in the northeast, they love a chat up there.
Did any of them just see you as an effete, southern film-maker with all the advantages in life?
I don’t think that north-south thing really comes into it. It’s just one person taking interest in another. I try my best to win people round. I think people quite enjoy that process – talking about what they know.
Did you ever feel threatened during filming?
There was a bit in the first episode when there was an idea that we might have grassed some people up on the wing, and an intelligence report came back to us that we were in danger of getting attacked. It felt a little bit odd, the atmosphere, for a couple of days. But actually it was fine. To be honest with you, I didn’t feel particularly endangered. In the main I felt really quite welcome.
The mental health episode had a devastating postscript. How did you feel upon learning of James’ death?
Totally shocked. It was awful. I just didn’t see the trajectory of his life going in that direction. Particularly with the level of care and support that he got. It felt like it was moving in the right direction, that he’d be going to a psychiatric unit for a period of assessment, which is something he wanted. But it just showed me how little you can know what is really going on inside someone’s head. It was extraordinarily sad. It was only with his mother’s blessing that we felt able to show that story, and we’re very grateful to her for that.
Was there a lot of stuff the staff at the prison asked you not to show?
I’m sure there must have been, but I can’t think what it was. There was a lot of concern about the James storyline in particular. But my argument was always “Just let us cut the film, and we’ll show it to you.” But I think the story actually challenges the idea that a death in custody is necessarily the outcome of some kind of wrongdoing or neglect. Actually, terrible things can happen despite people doing everything they can for an individual. I totally understood why there was anxiety around us showing that, but I knew what I’d filmed and what I’d seen, and I felt strongly that it was an important story, and one that would be really illuminating for the public, about the crisis of mental illness that’s going on every day up-and-down the country.
How long were you filming for?
Seven months, in total. Every day. I knew I needed a lot of stories for three episodes, and I knew there was so much uncertainty about what I’d be able to show and what I wouldn’t be able to show, because of issues of consent, or because of impending court cases. So I just kept gathering stories. But it was possible, because prisons are teeming with stories and life. These are often people who are very difficult to film on the outside, because they’re quite chaotic and unreliable. On the inside it’s much more feasible, because they’re there.
Did it take a toll on you?
To a point, but I like going to tough places, where you’re looking at the extremes of life. The worst thing that can occur when you’re filming is nothing happening. And that’s just not the case in a place like that. In fact, it’s weirdly invigorating, as a film-maker, because so much is going on. Even though you might be looking at people’s lives that are quite difficult, the actual process of being there and speaking to people is quite enjoyable. Plus I always look hard for those pockets of warmth and humour. I think a lot of prison films of the past have the danger of being a little bit one note in their tone. I’m always looking for characters or individuals or circumstances that are a little bit enjoyable to be around. In the drugs film there’s something quite amazing about people’s tenacity and ability to try and beat the system. I wanted all the films to be very present tense, I didn’t want them to be about people’s past or their crimes. I wanted to take the viewer inside a place they’d never set foot, and to give them a real taste of what it’s like in there. I was determined to make all the stories in the hear and now, and I think that gives it a vitality that you might not expect.
What was the biggest surprise to you, making this series?
I think the biggest surprise was the mental illness. I knew it was a problem, but to be amongst it and to witness it… I think there’s a mental health worker in that episode and I ask her how many prisoners are in there, and she says 950, and I asked how many of them suffer from mental halth problems, and she said “At least 600.” That is flabbergasting. The level of self-harm is truly shocking. That was the biggest surprise.
One of the things that comes to light in this final episode is how stressful it is for prisoners being released. Why is that?
Yeah. I think the public reckon that the day of release is a really happy one, and it so clearly wasn’t. Prison can take away the responsibility of making decisions. Suddenly you see prisoners about to leave, realising how difficult their life is about to become. It’s actually a very fearful thing.
If you were put in charge of prison policy tomorrow, what would be your first act in the job?
Oh God. I wouldn’t presume to know any better than the professionals that do it.
Okay, to put it another way, what’s the biggest problem facing prisons?
I think it’s a societal one, really. Poverty, housing crisis, drugs policies, cuts to mental health services – these are all problems that exist in society, and prison is a place where they have to cope with the consequences of that. That service is coping with difficulties that lots of services are facing outside. It’s a very deep-rooted set of problems, and not easy ones to solve.
What do you say to people who argue that life behind bars is too cushy?
It’s complete rubbish. You don’t have to spend long in a prison to realise it’s not a holiday camp. I think the biggest [problem is when people see that prisoners have a telly. But that does more to alleviate the problems that incarceration causes than any other thing. After I’d been in there a few months and the gloss of the new had worn off a bit, the sense of the narrow existence that people lead in a place like that is really quite a crushing thing. What’s particularly sad is when those living conditions are better for quite a lot of people than those they live in outside.