The minutes pass slowly when you're doing time
Life on the inside: their prisoners' stories built a picture of life in jail; interviews with a sister and a mother gave a window into prison's effect on families outside
TELEVISIONThe prisoners come across as decent and sincere – although those are relative terms, given the setting
A TV and an Xbox in your room, a gym downstairs, dessert after dinner and a prison that looks, from the outside at least, like a country-house hotel: if you dipped into the first part of the prison documentary Life on the Inside (RTÉ One, Monday) last week you could happily rummage around the great box of knee-jerk responses, dust off “holiday camp” and start a prisoners-have-it-cushy rant.
By the end of this week’s, harder-edged second episode, though, the day-to-day dullness of prison life, with its boredom, violence and drugs, was clear. Traolach Ó Buachalla, the documentary’s director, filmed in both Shelton Abbey, an open prison in Co Wicklow, and Wheatfield Prison, in west Dublin, over a year, focusing on six inmates.
Their stories built a picture of prison life; interviews with a sister and a mother gave a window into the effect of imprisonment on families outside.
Ó Buachalla was both lucky and unlucky with the prisoners he chose (or was given by the prison service – that wasn’t clear), because they were articulate, good in front of the camera and open about their feelings. Not that they were wailing with remorse about their crimes – viewers tuning in for that would have been disappointed, and Ó Buachalla’s purpose was to show life inside the prison, not life inside their heads. And as boring and restricting as prison life looked, it didn’t seem to bother the inmates too much; many of those interviewed had been in prison many times.
But nothing much happened to the chosen six through the year, and there are only so many scenes you can watch of a prisoner painting a wall before . . . well, it’s not for nothing that’s a shorthand for tedium.
And fly-on-the-wall documentaries depend on spontaneous things happening to the main characters to give them momentum. The prisoners came across as decent and sincere guys, and in the end I was rooting for most of them, hoping they could turn their lives around – although decent and sincere are relative terms, given the subject matter: one man killed his dad; others were in for robbery.
The wardens were more clear eyed: “We have over 700 hundred men in here,” said Officer Darling, at Wheatfield. “They are not in here for being good boys.” So while cameras showed searches for drugs (a huge and apparently intractable problem in both prisons) and violence (a weapons amnesty at Wheatfield collected a bucket of lethal-looking cell-made knives), the six interviewees seemed removed from all that.