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“Bronson” (2009) Dir Nicholas Winding Refn. Time for a Grown Up Debate on Prisons


“Bronson” (Film Four all week)  is a creative tour de force and Tom Hardy is outstanding in the lead role confirming that he is a major talent.

I expected this film to be a collage of prison violence but director Nicholas Winding Refn instead opts for an analysis of the Bronson psyche through the medium of the main protagonist presenting his life to a fantasy music hall audience, the main action taking place in flashback.

We are introduced to a guy whose brain is quite clearly wired up wrongly, and whilst there is no excuse for Bronson’s actions one wonders if a more palliative approach when he began to exhibit bizarre behaviour would have produced a better outcome, and saved the tax payer a whole lot of money.

Instead brutal treatment escalated Bronson’s sense of injustice and but when a prolonged spell of control via drugs was suddenly ended he was released and offended again in an unexpectedly pathetic way. His re incarceration was the catalyst for his spiral into ultra violence and current infamy.

I spent a number of years working on a weekly (sometimes daily) basis in three different local prisons and it completely changed my view of things. If you follow the adage about Society being measured as humane based on its treatment of offenders then the UK falls well short.

UK prisons are horrible nasty and uncivilised places. Well so they should be goes the argument. But how can it possibly be pragmatic or right to treat people like this? It means any chance of meaningful rehabilitation impossible and a sense of festering resentfulness is inculcated into prisoners.

We have the highest prison population and the greatest recidivism rates in the democratic world after the USA. And it’s not hard to see why when you listen for a couple of hours to the prisoners about what goes on inside. It just isn’t right in a civilised society.

In an attempt to overcome a reputation as being soft on prisoners the New Labour Government banged up record numbers of offenders. When Labour left office in May 2010 the UK prison population stood at 85,076, which was an increase of around 24,000 compared to 1997. Ministry of Justice figures published in 2010 showed that some jails were finding that over 75% of those released after sentences of less than 12 months were re offending. Overall the statistics demonstrated that a depressing 74% of all those convicted of a crime re offended within nine years. This in itself poses a huge challenge to the UK as crime rates fall but prison populations reach capacity. A paradox in any body’s eyes.

Prison and rehabilitation. These two things a well-functioning society should do really well. Not only should those who break the law should be properly punished they should receive attention whilst inside to ensure that they have the chance to turn their lives around once out of prison. But this is huge problem, a policy like this costs vast amounts, then when you have Tories portraying prisons as holiday camps a solid policy becomes a distant dream.

When you enter a prison the first thing that hits you is the sheer claustrophobia of the place. Clanking doors and keys aside the sense of everything and everyone being on top of one another is palpable. You have outside caged corridors where offenders line up for movements, then the net covered stairwells as you move onto the incredibly narrow wings with the jump nets stretched across as you look down to the dining and association areas. Moving around you notice the “prison pallor” of the offenders; grey flaky skin and bad teeth, and the way that eye contact works both between offenders and officers.

A single cell in a modern block is thus. If you lie on the bed you can touch all four walls at the same time and the toilet, metal, is squashed into a corner. There is a worktop with barely room for a TV let alone books or writing materials. There is some space on the wall, just enough for a couple of family snaps. And this is inhabited by a Category C (little threat) offender who has a privileged role due to his exemplary behaviour and work with vulnerable offenders. This writer is by no means claustrophobic, but the thought of being in there with the door shut and locked for up to 22 hours a day at weekends was very sobering. Then imagine a double cell with a guy suffering from an upset stomach.

I would like to be able to describe some scenarios I have been witness to in order to get across just how horrible prisons are, but that would betray confidences. These words however come up again and again. Bullying, oppressiveness, despair but also hope, empathy and dedication.

More than 70% of the prison population has two or more mental health disorders. Male prisoners are 14 times more likely to have two or more disorders than men in general, and female prisoners are 35 times more likely than women in general to have a mental illness.The suicide rate in prisons is almost 15 times higher than in the general population: in 2008 the rate was 143 per 100,000 compared to 9 per 100,000 in the general population.

If you look at the background of offenders, this statistic makes for chilling reading; Fact: 0.5% of UK people have been in care as children, experiencing all the heartache that leads up to, and follow from this desperate situation which must be more than anyone could or should take. Fact: 27% of the prison population, well over a quarter, have been in care.

So once again we are drawn back to Tony Blair. “Tough on crime”. We need to ensure early intervention to make sure our young people don’t come into contact with the legal system in the first place. Therefore it’s not science of the rocket variety that in order to reduce crime, save money and give the general population more peace of mind, the Government should be taking affirmative action to work with these young people who desperately need the skills of teamwork, cooperation, recognition that they have something to offer and most importantly that there are people out there who actually care what happens to them, and want them to have successful and happy lives.

This won’t be popular but the punitive and unnecessary practice of locking people up in dilapidated and/or ridiculously small cells has to stop. The mere fact of being incarcerated, for the most part, is punishment enough and the continuation of dreadful conditions is no way to show offenders that Society believes in respect and an opportunity to make good your mistakes.

. The attitude must move from punishment and judging people’s characters, to pragmatic methods to deal with crime and make sure offenders are brought back into society as people ready to contribute to the betterment of life for all.

As a nation, our prisons are bursting to the seams, but our percentage is lower than the USA and Russia, we incarcerate around 150 in 100,000 whilst the USA put away 716 in 100,000- a huge population. The fact is, we need genuine investment in our prisons to ensure that those in prison are reformed so that upon their release they can make lives for themselves and thus they are not at a cost to the state. The fact is, in this country we should make work pay but we should also ensure that chances to work are there for everyone, even those who have made mistakes in the past. It is easy to support human rights for those with whom we have sympathy and empathy. “The real test for human rights is whether we can offer support for those whom we dislike and cannot empathise with.*” Food for thought.

The picture is in many ways an homage to A Clockwork Orange and I sincerely hope that it prompts some of the same reflections about where we are going as a society.

*Conversation with a Samaritan August 2011



About dermotrathbone

Writer and co author "Through Red Lenses". Activist Unite the Union, Save Our NHS Hull. Fan of Yorkshire County Cricket Club, Hull FC, Munster and Ireland Rugby. Views are mine alone and may not reflect the organisations concerned.


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