Although none of the inmates we encounter in Inside Ireland's Largest Prison (Virgin Media One, 9pm) dispute their crimes or, for the most part, their sentences, director Aoife Kelleher's documentary series can sometimes feel like a parade of innocence.
“Stupid carry on,” frowns Tommy, a candid, personable and seemingly luckless Wicklow man, considering the burglary that returned him to prison. It was his 66th conviction, resulting in an accumulated 14 years of jail time. “You get addicted to robbing, you know?” he chuckles, having spent most of life struggling with deeper addictions.
He nods over a metalwork task: “That’s me finished.” Those words seem to resonate.
Perhaps the documentary is circumspect, filming life on the inside of Midlands Prison over the course of a year – a vast institution with 830 prisoners, murderers and sex offenders among them – but preferring encounters with “ordinary decent criminals” such as artless burglars and mild drugs offenders.
Still, you don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to find ready sympathy with some of the men featured, more inclined to participate, perhaps, because they believe in the possibility of reform.
The second episode is notionally structured around an economy of contraband – drugs and phones smuggled inside in “the jail pocket”, a quickly decoded euphemism, or improvised shivs found in cells. But it is really a more poignant exploration of hope.
Contraband allows the film a glimpse at dutiful process from the staff’s perspective: the monitoring, raids and body searches (“squat”) and an adorable sniffer dog called Benji.
But the rise and fall of hope is a more revealing path, lensing a prison’s culture from both the staff and prisoners’ perspectives. This is, as prison governor Ethel Gavin says, a small village, albeit one in which 50-60 per cent of the population have dependency issues.
With disheartening regularity, drug addiction is at the root of many crimes. Another prisoner, Colum, a trim woodwork perfectionist, experimented with drugs early, became addicted and began selling. He is serving a 10-year sentence for a three-kilo cannabis possession, keen to prove himself worthy of an open prison.
Drugs sentences can be particularly severe – another prisoner, Shane, incarcerated for significant cannabis possession, is denied leave to attend his father’s funeral – but the lesson of prison is that in the war on drugs, drugs are winning. “The reality is that prisoners leave sessions with a drug counsellor and go back into an environment where drugs are available,” says counsellor Liam Hunter with a soft sigh.
Jail is meant to be rehabilitative, but this is nobody’s idea of a recovery programme.
You might say the same about the show, whose conclusion this week is particularly tragic, so much so that it might have been wiser to let the final titles play in silence. Colum, transferred to a minimum security open prison, is overwhelmed by it. “You’re lost. Do you know what I mean?” he tells the camera.
We learn that he was soon sent back to Midlands.
Tommy, the bluff Wicklow man, seems undecided about prison’s lasting effect. “Prison saves half of them,” he says of incarcerated addicts. But before leaving, he changes his mind: “They’re getting out worse than they went in.”
Anxiously preparing to go home, we last see him awaiting a train, willing himself to be positive by reading aloud from the bible.
He died suddenly, the title says without elaboration, nine days later.