Britain's Most Notorious Prisons, review: Wormwood Scrubs' hard men on a life of drugs and violence
Prisons aren’t nice places. That is the point of prisons. So I’m not sure anyone will have been surprised by Britain’s Notorious Prisons (ITV1), which wheeled out a host of former convicts to tell us how grim life inside can be.
To be fair, they were talking about the bad old days at Wormwood Scrubs. This west London jail has a certain cachet – the programme began by telling us that its famous towers had appeared in The Italian Job and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and has variously housed not just Peter Sutcliffe and Donald Neilson but Keith Richards and Pete Doherty.
However, most of the tales here were not of the showbiz kind. Cells swarming with rats. A description of the sight – and smell – of 300 inmates “slopping out”, a process that carried on until the 1990s. Toothbrushes turned into makeshift weapons fitted with not one but two razor blades, making it more difficult for flesh to be sewn back together.
Then there were the various ways of smuggling drugs into the prison, from the “ingenious” (in the words of the former head of security) method of running a fishing line from a top-floor cell to the roof of the Hammersmith Hospital next door, to sewing drugs inside a dead pigeon and lobbing it into the yard. “The prison system runs on drugs,” explained one ex-con. “Anything to escape, because people are confined 23 hours a day and that sends any person crazy. All they want to do is get off their head because they can’t deal with reality.”
There is always a danger that programmes such as this fetishise the violence and those who perpetrate it. The talking heads were all former hard men who spoke of being shot through the eye or having part of their ear bitten off or beating someone to a pulp. They have all since turned their lives around, but I’m not sure what their recollections added to the sum of our knowledge, particularly when many of the stories were of their exploits on the outside.
Thankfully, the programme featured other voices, including a former prison governor and GP. It also revisited George Blake’s escape from prison, which will always be a great story. Michael Randle, the peace protester who helped to spring Blake from the Scrubs with a ladder fashioned from rope and knitting needles, appeared here to say that he still has no regrets.